Uganda: Part Three
Have you had a drink of water yet today? Or how about a long shower? Did you even give it a second thought as you turned on the tap and watched the H2O pour out? I will admit with great remorse that before my trip to Africa, I absolutely took water for granted. If you take nothing else away from this short blog series, I hope you will give a prayer of thanks tonight for the abundance of available water with which most of us are blessed.
From the first moment I drove into Uganda, there was one constant sight no matter where you looked: yellow plastic jugs called jerry cans. You don’t go anywhere without one, as they hold the one thing our bodies need the most: WATER.
You probably already know that we can live more than three weeks without taking in any food, but less than a week without water to drink. And sadly in many parts of the world, access to water is a great difficulty.
I had already been told that the children in Karukoba village had to walk a very long way to fetch water each day. I knew that for the younger children and women who were elderly or heavily pregnant, it could take up to four hours of their day. EVERY day. But I also knew it was one thing to hear it, and another to live it.
So I asked our friends in the village if we could possibly do the water run with the children after school one day. I had no idea what to expect, but I think the local adults were taking bets on whether or not the two foreigners would make it down to the valley and then back up the mountain. Since our Beijing director Cindy Wu was the first person from China to ever make the trek, and since I was the first American to ever go down into the valley, I was saying a little prayer that we wouldn’t shame our respective countries. I tried not to take it personally when they ran to get me a “baby water can” to carry, because they were so confident that I would never make it back up with a normal sized one.
We left at 5:05 p.m. that day, which gave us just under 3 hours until it would be dark. From the moment we started down the steep dirt path, we began to meet children who had already been down to the water source. I was told that a 20 liter jerry can weighs 40 pounds when full, and yet almost every child I passed had one on his or her head.
From the moment a child learns to walk, they learn to carry water. For as my new friends told me again and again, “Without water…there can be no life.”
As we walked down the dirt trail, I tried to play close attention to where the children in front of me stepped so I could try and copy their path to keep from slipping. I was trying to wrap my mind around the children doing this walk every single day for two hours in the morning and two hours at night, and I was even more saddened to learn that many children begin the walk in the dark, relying on the light of the moon to see the path. Since most village homes don’t have a clock, children rely on the sound of roosters to wake up, and if a rooster mistakenly crows at 3 a.m., the children hop up and start down the trail, not knowing the real time. I was told it’s not uncommon to find children sleeping at the water source due to getting there before the sunrise.
Many stories were told to me about children who had been injured falling down the hills. In fact, the village has a special drumbeat they sound whenever someone is injured fetching water, calling all villagers to come and help. If someone has broken a leg, for example, they will have to carry the person on a twig stretcher over their heads up the mountain. Many children showed me the scars on their bodies they have received from falling and being injured while making the trek. During rainy season, the danger increases exponentially as the dusty dirt path turns to a wet and slippery mud.
The lack of access to water has implications for the entire village. The great amount of time women and children spend fetching water keeps them from both school and income-producing activities. It also often limits the number of meals a child receives to one per day. For many children, they wake up before 5 a.m. to do the water run, returning home with their plastic jerry can for the family and then running in the opposite direction for school. There is no time for breakfast, so they start their school day extremely hungry, often having nothing since lunch the day before.
There are often fights at the water area, as older children push the younger ones out of the way so they can run back home and make it to school in time. If you are late to the public school far from the village, you are punished severely, so having to wait in line to fill your water jug can be very stressful.
The UN has set a minimum of 40 liters of water per person per day for health and survival. In this region, 20 liters a day is the goal. For little children who are carrying 5 liter buckets (10 pounds), they must make four trips up and down the mountain to reach that amount. Twenty liters of water equals just 5 gallons, and the average American uses 100 gallons per person every single day.
It took us just under an hour to walk down the mountain to the valley water source, and then another 20 minutes to fill up our plastic cans. We were quickly running out of time to get back before dark. So the kids handed me my “baby water can” (which weighed only about 10 pounds), and we began the climb.
We climbed straight up the hill for over 30 minutes, and I will admit that I was panting pretty hard at that point, not only from the physical stress but also because I hadn’t had water to drink that day yet either. When the children thought I needed a rest, I was more than happy to put down my baby jug. We sat on the side of the mountain, overlooking a steep cliff, and no matter which direction I looked, there were people going up and down the mountain paths to get water.
While we sat and looked at the view, I decided to play some music on my phone, and the teen girls in Uganda seemed to like One Direction just as much as my daughter back in Florida does. I love how music can bring us all together even without a common language.
The next song that came up on my phone was “Moves Like Jagger” by Maroon 5, and there was something about the beat which caused seven-year-old Julius to suddenly jump up and start dancing. I had been worried about this little boy since the moment I met him, as he was painfully thin and he had open sores on his head. But wow — could he dance. I hope you will take the time to watch this little video clip of him getting his groove on, because it was an absolutely surreal moment to me to be on a hillside in Uganda fetching water…watching his pure joy at the unfamiliar rhythm. (View this video here: https://youtu.be/Klb9BORZ8L0)
(If anyone knows Adam Levine, feel free to pass this on. : ) Maybe he would want to fund a water solution for Julius so that this gorgeous little boy could just concentrate on his dance skills full-time!)
My rest stop on the mountain was costing us precious time as the sun began to go down, so once more we grabbed our water jugs and began climbing. Two hours and 45 minutes after we first started down the path, we emerged back on top. I consider myself to be in pretty decent shape since I exercise every day, but this was such a strenuous climb. And as excited as I was to have made it back up, I quickly faced the reality that we had only gotten enough water to last until morning – when the children would once again have to head down the hillside.
Now that I am back home, I have of course been reading everything I can find on the issue of water, and I found this quote from a UN report:
Water is central to humanity’s social and economic existence. Not having access to safe water is a form of deprivation that threatens life, destroys opportunity, and undermines human dignity.
That is truth. Somber truth. And even more sobering is that I have now learned that NGOs have spent billions digging wells in Africa, but the reality is that most fall into disrepair in a short period of time. Some researchers have reported that over half of the wells that have been dug in Africa are in non-working order due to broken parts, corrosion, and sinking water pipes. It isn’t enough to simply come in, dig a well, and leave.
Access to water is a life-long issue for villages in Africa, and so they need a long-term, sustainable solution. More and more charities are actually turning to rainwater collection, and so while we investigate wells, we are also looking at large plastic tanks which could be put on the four corners of a proposed new school building to gather every precious drop which falls from the sky.
There simply has to be a solution to help the children from this village have the water they need to live.
I have put together a short video (which can be seen here on YouTube: https://youtu.be/ikhJMR_WzCw) of some of the beautiful kids we passed on our water trek. I know it’s not very common these days for people to watch a four-minute long video, but I hope you will, even though it’s obviously not professionally made. I hope you will especially watch the last part where the two little sisters help each other down the path, as you can see how easy it would be for a small child to fall and be hurt.
Since I have returned, I find myself looking at the multiple sinks in my home and feeling a deep ache, and a sense of shame that I have taken it all for granted. Right at this very moment, thousands of children across Uganda are once again walking, up and down the hillsides, carrying yellow jerry cans atop their heads in search of this most essential resource.
Without water, there is no life. Without water, there is no life.