This year for my birthday, I have a special request. Check it out at http://mycharitywater.org/jdh after reading the article below, from spring, 2006.
Sweat dripping and shoulders aching, we stumbled through the darkness and into the light of the campfire circle the rest of our team was gathered around. Lurching past them to our “kitchen” (a gathering of pots and pans around the glowing embers of a second fire), Joel and I rolled the water pails wearily off our shoulders, letting them smack hard on the dusty, reddish dirt. Our shirts were soaked from sweat and spilled water. Our breathing began to slow as we realized we had actually made it. Tired, we grinned at each other broadly. “We did it!” I cried, still a little surprised at how stubborn my will can be. The southern cross gleamed over us in the bright, night sky. And our sense of accomplishment dimmed as we remembered what compelled us to carrying water that night.
Joel (who I happen to share my name with) and I were on the southeast shore of Africa in the country of Mozambique. With more than 50% of the population living on less than $1 a day[i] and an HIV infection rate of 16%[ii], much of Mozambique struggles through their daily life. We were nearing the end of a ten-day relief and community development assessment trip with World Relief, a holistic, evangelical relief agency with extensive international operations. We had spent the last week in two villages, Chaimite and Koca Misava in Gaza province, listening to the people and learning how we could partner with them in AIDS and poverty relief.
Earlier that day we had been walking around the village of Koca Misava, comprised of a mixture of reed huts and small, one-room cement block dwellings. The dirt was cleanly swept in the working space around each house and kids and women were busy grinding corn and separating the chaff, preparing for the fast approaching evening, when darkness hits around 5:30.
Just under 20% of the world lives without daily access to potable water. In Koca Misava, there is one well in town of brackish water, but it operates through an electric pump and there is a $.10 US equivalent charge to secure a day’s worth of water. Of the 2200 families in Koca Misava, just under 100 can regularly afford this extra expense. The other 2100 make two trips, one each at dawn and dusk, to gather the water they’ll need to make it through the day from the river in the Limpopo valley, a little over 2 kilometers outside of town.
Upon reaching the outskirts of town late that afternoon, we saw many women and young girls making their evening trek to gather water. Wandering with them toward the river, we came suddenly to a steep drop off. A gorgeous panorama was spread out before us, the valley below stretching for miles in either direction. Patches of rice, maize, and other vegetation were hand-tilled below, the soil to wet to support a tractor. To our right, a narrow, uneven dirt path descended steeply and we could just see at the bottom where the women were gathering water. As we paused at the crest, a young girl bobbed up the path next to us, balancing 20 litres of water on her head. We had left the village behind some distance before and were stunned to think that she was about to carry this all the way back after already ascending the sharp terrain below. Sybil, a World Relief staff member with us, inquired of her age for us. She was just 10 years old.
A litre of water weighs 2.2 lbs. Add about 5 lbs to the total number of litres to account for the weight of the bucket and this 10 year old girl was carefully balancing 50 lbs on her head. From the middle of the village to the riverbed is 2.25 kilometers. Hiking down to the river loses 265 feet of elevation, the overwhelming majority of that being in the last ¾ kilometer, which she had just crested. Stunned by the distance and steep ascent of the hike back, Joel and I decided to get a taste of African life and carry our own water that evening. Sybil shared with us on the way back to camp that your average pail of water for an adult is 25 litres (roughly 60 lbs). At 6’4”, 145 lbs, I’m not exactly a man of steel. But I’m incredibly stubborn. Joel is 2” and 5 lbs less than me. And apparently just as bull-headed. Sybil looked at us and laughed when we said we wanted to try it out that evening.
At our campsite in the middle of Koca Misava, we picked up our water jugs and two World Relief staff members to make sure we didn’t get lost and headed out into the gathering dusk. The walk down was an enjoyable enough, talking about our activities of the day and admiring the beauty of the African countryside surrounding us. Just under 30 minutes after leaving, we came to the watering hole. A small stream of muddy water, dammed by a few logs, it wasn’t more than 6 inches deep. We stopped to fill our pails to overflowing, scooping with a small jug that was lying among the bushes. Men don’t (thankfully) carry things on their head as the women do, so were lifted the jugs to our shoulders and began the daunting return trip.
An hour and a half after we had initially left our campsite, we stumbled back in, dirty, wet, and worn-out. As we sat down to dinner around the campfire, we considered that our one trek was a relatively small drop in the bucket of what life is like in the villages of Mozambique. We didn’t have to get up at 4:00 the next morning and hike back down to repeat the same trek. We hadn’t spent all day grinding maize by hand and preparing our meals. We didn’t even drink from the pails we had returned with, sipping instead from bottled water that wouldn’t sicken us.
As the Milky Way swept over the night sky, we took in deep breaths and considered the life we’d been blessed with. I often wrestle with the responsibility of the life I’ve been given, unsure why I have so much that others lack. I pray for wisdom to live frugally and for the benefit of others. And I long to link arms with my African brothers and sisters and carry the water of life to all of humanity.
[ii] UNAIDS 2006 Report on the global AIDS epidemic (available at http://data.unaids.org/pub/GlobalReport/2006/GR06_en.zip)