New Beginnings – The Origin of the Otter Coven

In 2017 I (Esther) travelled from the UK to India for an important work event: I was going to talk shit for five days at the FSM4 Conference. It was a gathering of WASHies (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene enthusiasts) like no other; I caught up with old friends and past colleagues, and met some new people. Little did I know then that two of those people would go on to be my co-founders of the Otter Coven.

Our favourite emoji pin badge attending the FSM4 conference in Chennai, India

I met Becky Sindall and Dani Barrington at the conference, and we instantly hit it off discussing conference classics like the long walk to the toilets and the tasty food at the breaks. We also chatted about the interesting work happening in the field of faecal sludge, and at the end of the conference I hoped to bump into the two of them at future WASH events.  

Not long after the conference I was involved in a work situation where I felt there was some serious gaslighting of Menstrual Health and Hygiene (MHH) issues from a male peer. Whilst messaging Dani and Becky, I simply got lazy and didn’t want to type the same thing twice so put them both in the same messaging group and thus began the Otter Coven! (We have privately called ourselves many things since our little group got started but this is what we have settled on for public consumption. You can read why on The Otter Coven page.) 

Fortunately, six months later, we were all at another conference. This time we managed to sit together in some of the sessions and discuss work a little more. What kept coming up was how many presentations left out key pieces of information for replication, information that left us unsure as to how we could use the learnings for our work – had things really gone as smoothly as we were led to believe?  

In the months that followed we discussed a range of things: some work, some professional development or career progression, and increasingly personal challenges. It was something I hadn’t realise I needed. They say “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” but we know that’s unrealistic; there is always bureaucracy somewhere, but embracing that concept we began to look into how we could find ways to work together.  

At the time, we were at similar points in our careers with a number of strategic meetings for projects and the opportunity to attend some conferences. One recurring theme that would come up was wanting to know the real story behind the polished presentation. We were fortunate to be well connected across continents and the sector, to be able to speak to colleagues and find out a little more on the reality of their work. But we kept seeing that there were challenges, or failures, that were only being shared in informal settings: the pub, long car journeys to the field, or in casual group chats on WhatsApp. This information could help others and prevent them repeating the same mistakes – but there was so much secrecy of these failures. We began to ask why that was. 

And so, our WASH failures work began. Dani, with her role in academia was able to commit some time and funding to our initial endeavour, and with that the game show was born (Becky wrote about it in a previous incarnation of the Water.Women.World blog here). It started as some fun, a bit of novelty that played to our strengths as communicators, but we always had a grand plan to work on the serious side – how do we get better at talking about failures? 

Well, this site and the resources shared here are a testament to the community we are building through our Otter Coven to find practical ways to address failures in WASH, and wherever else our work is useful.  

Welcome to the updated Water.Women.World blog, now home to the Otter Coven!

Dani, Esther and Dani at UN City in Copenhagen, Denmark on World Toilet Day 2018

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