She felt trapped. Sleet pattered on Asha’s bedroom window casting tiny droplet shadows on her face. She frowned at the quaint New England street that laid undisturbed on this dreary Saturday winter afternoon.
“If only, if only” Asha kept repeating in her head. “If only I had money, I would travel all over the world. If only Mom could see things my way, this wouldn’t be so hard.” Three knocks on the door interrupted Asha from her thoughts.
“Asha, another one came today,” her mother said excitedly as she handed Asha a hefty white envelope. “That’s five schools that sent you acceptance packages. Do you know which one you want to go to?”
Asha walked towards her mother, slowly taking the package away. Walking towards her desk, where a small pile of packages occupied a corner, she threw the new one on top of the pile and let out a sigh.
“Honestly, Asha,” her mother raised her voice as she lifted her hand to her hips. “Most people would be excited to get all of these acceptance packages. It’s been two weeks! Every day I ask you, you say that you’re thinking. Thinking is fine, but not talking about it is ridiculous! What if the deadline already passed? We need to choose the best one and work out the finances. Everything has a deadline and you haven’t decided yet?”
“Mom,” Asha fixed her eyes on her mother’s fuzzy blue slippers, “we’ve been through this. College is not for me. I’m not ready to jump into four years of studying, papers, exams.”
“Not for you!” Her mother took in a long breath before letting out a loud and angry sigh. “Asha, you have the opportunity to go to college, something I did not have. It’s the smartest choice for you. What will you do if you don’t go to college? I can’t support you forever. What, you’re just going to stay at McDonald’s flipping burgers all day? That’s not a career, and you can’t get a career unless you go to college.”
“No!” Asha lifted her dark brown eyes and made eye contact with her mother. A cold chill ran down the back of her neck. Her legs seemed like it was suddenly made out of lead, planting her firmly on the carpeted floor. “I,” Asha shrugged, “I just know I won’t like college. I was so happy to know that I’ll be done with high school soon, that I’ll be able to go anywhere in the world, to see the world. I want to get out of this town and just meet new people. But you keep forcing me to go to college, and…”
“Forcing you!” Her mother was on the verge of screaming at her daughter. “I did not force you to do anything. I did not strap you to your chair and make you fill in those application forms.” Her mother took a step closer to Asha and lifted her chapped skinny forefinger at her. “I will not give you money so that you can waste by traveling around the world. What good will that do? College is an investment. When you get a college education, you have a good chance of getting a good career, a good start in life. I already paid for all the application fees to the colleges that you chose. You will go to college!” Before Asha could put in another word, her mother had already stormed out of the room.
Turning towards the envelopes on her desk, a tear fell down her face. An unexpected surge of rage that once lied dormant in her screamed in her head. Asha’s hands grabbed the envelopes and swung them at the floor. I don’t want to go! I don’t want to go! She kept repeating to herself through her clenched teeth and now wet face. Tears fell from her chin and splattered on one listless envelope under her foot. Sobbing and trembling from anger, her hands closed on a corner of the envelope. She remembered that Mr. Jones, the college counselor, once asked Asha, “What are you passionate about?” All she could say was that she didn’t know if she had a passion for anything.
After a quiet dinner with her mother, Asha reluctantly took out the folders from the packages and laid them on her bed. Looking from one colorful cover to another, she began to remember.
Last summer, she worked at a science camp. She was assisting the children in their lessons on the ecosystem of the area.
“I didn’t know anything about the ecosystem!” she told Mark, another worker there. “But Ms. Brown said that there’s a two-week training course for me. They were paying me to learn about the ecosystem. Then they paid me to teach the kids. It was great!” It was Asha’s first summer job and she loved the idea of being paid to hike through the woods with the campers.
Mark was the Nature Trail Instructor whom she assisted. One day, they walked to a green pond. The children were going to catch some bugs and other organisms and identify them.
“Ewwww!” said one of the campers. “I don’t want to touch that water. It’s dirty!”
“It’s not dirty,” Mark replied. “It’s just duckweed. Ducks and swans love them. If you want to see dirty, go to a rural village in Mali and see what they have to drink. Now, that’s some dirty water, but they still drink it, and it didn’t killed them. I think you can manage to get a little of this pond water on you.”
While eating dinner in the mess room, Asha asked Mark what he meant when he told the camper about the dirty drinking water condition in Mali.
“Did you actually go to Mali and see people drinking dirty water? Or did you make that up to convince the kid it’s okay to touch the pond water?”
“Oh, I didn’t make it up.” Mark was surprised that Asha thought that he lied. “About five years ago, I joined the Peace Corps and volunteered in a small village in Mali. My project was to build two wells for the village. You see, Asha, before the wells were built, the people would go to a stream and get their water from there. During the dry season, the stream would run real low, even stop running. So they walk to a pond and get their water from there. Now, the water is untreated. Animals go to the pond and stream and drink from there, even do their dirty business there. So you can imagine how bad the water is. When I went, the children were sick, they were dying.”
“That’s horrible!” Asha was dumfounded. She couldn’t believe that such a place existed where children died because they didn’t have clean water. Surely the government had to fix the problem, she thought. If the children in my town started dying, there would be an uproar and things would get fixed.
“That’s why the Peace Corps sent me there with four other volunteers. I worked on wells and water systems before, so they wanted me to build a water system for the villagers. It took two years to get the wells. The villagers didn’t have much money or expertise, so it took a lot of talking, planning, and negotiating. But when the wells were done, you should have seen them. They were crying for joy.”
“They were crying, just because they now have water?” Asha asked in disbelief.
“Of course! They were happy because they now know that their children won’t die from drinking dirty water. They were able to get water within ten minutes walking instead of hours.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Asha splurted.
“Um, what is?” Marked asked, confused as to what Asha thought to be ridiculous.
“That such a thing can exist in today’s world.” Asha flushed with anger. “We have bottled water, sodas, juices, liquor. We have so many water products to choose from and you’re telling me that in some parts of the world people don’t even have water? Plain old water? I mean, if you said that this happened a hundred years ago I would understand it. But today, still?”
“It’s unfair, I know. But they live in impoverished conditions. The government has forgotten them. They want to get clean water, they want to pull themselves out of poverty, but they don’t have the resources or opportunities like we do.”
“So they’re stuck in some kind of vicious cycle?” Asha asked incredulously.
“Something like that.”
Asha’s mind was racing. She still couldn’t believe that such inequality existed. Men have gone to the moon. Humans found different ways to create energy. People created nuclear bombs. And yet there are children out there that can’t drink clean water? Have we misplaced our priorities?
“Why did you do it? Why did you go?” Asha couldn’t believe why anyone would choose to live in poverty for two years.
Mark fell silent and dreamily looked at the ceiling as if the answer was written there. “Honestly, I was bored. I was bored with working in the office, doing the same things every day. The pay was great, but, I wasn’t happy. I wanted to do more, feel better about myself. I wanted to prove to myself that I am a worthy person. So I went, in hopes that by helping others I could help myself.”
Ever since that day, Asha had hoped to join the Peace Corps. She was bored with school and the same routine that goes on in her life. Nothing was exciting anymore, she didn’t feel the passion that some of her classmates felt when they talked about college or what they wanted for a career. Life was a monotonous mindless task.
Breakfast on Sunday morning with her mother was as quiet as the dinner from the night before. Asha gulped, straightened her back, and lifted her head.
“Mom,” she said loudly, “I know you want me to go to college. But, I want to do something good for others first. I want to join the Peace Corps.”
Her mother’s eyes widened as her lips thinned. Slowly placing the newspaper that she was reading down on the table, she took in a deep breath. “Asha, the Peace Corps is a good organization. But, it’s too dangerous for you. It’s not easy. And, you will be gone for years. You’re too young.”
“But, I want to do something important. Something good. Like a week ago, Mark, you remember the guy I worked with at the summer camp? Anyway, he sent me an e-mail about this boy in Malawi that built a windmill to make electricity for his house. I think his name was William. Anyway, he was only fourteen and all he had were old tractor parts and a bicycle. But he made electricity! And he didn’t even finish high school. He had to drop out because he couldn’t afford the tuition. Then he started building more windmills for other families, and now, he’s making lots of money, traveling the world, telling his story.”
“That’s a good story, an inspiring one, but Asha, how will volunteering help you get a good job. How will it help you pay the bills? Why can’t you volunteer later, after you retire?”
“Because, Mom,” Asha was getting desperate, “I don’t know when I’ll die. I could die tomorrow. And if I do, I’ll regret for not doing the things I wanted to do.”
“Asha! Don’t talk like that. You’re not going to die tomorrow.”
“But I could. No one knows when they are going to die. Haven’t you heard of the phrases, ‘seize the day’ or ‘live in the moment?’”
Her mother’s lips curled on the side. It meant that she was holding a laugh. Seeing that this was her opportunity to convince her mother, Asha continued.
“Mom, I can make a difference out there. There’s this eight-year-old kid, Ryan from Canada. He came home one day, bent on building a well. He just learned from his teacher that there were people in the world that were dying because they didn’t have clean water. Ryan raised $70 and sent it to an organization that built a well in a Ugandan village. But the well cost more than $70, so he got his friends, neighbors, his community to raise the rest of the money. And now, he has his own organization, building wells around the world. Mom, I want to be able to make a difference too!”
“I know, but honey…”
“I’m good with kids and I’m a fast learner. I’m tough. You see how I can work part-time and go to school full-time without ever missing a class. You see how I get good grades and get all these acceptance letters from colleges. I can make it in the Peace Corps. And you know, colleges and employees will see that I’m a well-rounded person. Not only do I do well in school, I help others out. I get work experience by being in the Peace Corps, I get to meet new people, I get to see the world. It’s an investment.”
Her mother looked at her daughter who had suddenly seemed to have grown up right before her eyes. She was proud, but very worried.
“Asha, you are a good person. You have a big heart. But I just don’t think it’s safe for an eighteen-year-old to go live in some run-down village with diseases and little food and water. What about the people? How do you know if they will be nice to you? What will you do if you get sick? Is their doctor good enough to help you? It’s a big risk. And besides, you’ll be gone for over a year, to a place where it would be difficult for me or your friends to visit you. And when you come back, your friends would already be well on their way to land their first real job, and you’ll be lagging behind. Have you really thought this through?”
In truth, Asha hadn’t thought it through. Her idea of being in the Peace Corps was more romantic than practical. She never thought that she wouldn’t be able to see her friends for years. It never crossed her mind that she might not be able to see her mother either. A bit scared and confused, Asha fell quiet. I still don’t want to go to college, but Mom’s right. I’m not ready for the Peace Corps yet. She felt as defeated as the half-eaten bagel that sat cold on her plate.
“I had a friend who joined the Peace Corps, years ago,” her mother continued. “I think she was in Vietnam. Anyway, I would remember getting letters from her telling me how hard life was over there. She missed her bed, her shower, her friends and family. But she felt like her expertise in education really helped the community, and that’s why she stayed. Asha, the Peace Corps is hard to get into. You need to be able to offer them skills that they want. You’re just becoming an adult, just learning of your skills. Go to college, get your skills. And if you still want to join the Peace Corps, I wouldn’t object. Okay? For now, let the volunteers help build wells and such.”
Her mother looked at her daughter with warm gentle eyes. Asha took a bite of the bland and stale bagel and finished her orange juice.
“I have some homework to do. Thanks Mom.” Asha hurried off to her room,
softly closing the door behind her. Pacing around the room, twisting and untwisting a small part of her long black curly hair around her finger, she began to talk to herself.
“Mom’s right. I hate it when she’s right.” Asha sighed and crossed her arms around her chest as she paced some more. “I know I want to volunteer, but I don’t think I’ll last for two years. But I don’t want to go to college, not yet anyway.”
Frustrated, she went on the Internet to look at the Peace Corps’ website. Just looking at the information section showed that a lot is required from a volunteer. Asha wasn’t so sure anymore if she wanted to join. She typed in Peace Corps alternatives on a search engine and saw a list of websites. One, caught her eye, Global Volunteer Network. There were various programs to choose from and they had different time commitments, from a week to six months. Now this is something I can do.
“Asha!” Her mother yelled from downstairs. “Lunch!”
Asha had lost track of time. She spent the morning looking at different websites and at the different schools that accepted her. The rumbling in her stomach encouraged her to go downstairs.
“Well?” Her mother asked.
“Um, what?” Asha was confused. Was she supposed to answer something?
“You didn’t answer me when I asked you if you were going to go to college and wait to join the Peace Corps. You just left.”
“Oh.” Asha chewed on her curry chicken and rice as she tried to think of something that might convince her mother. “I understand your concern, Mom. And you’re right, the Peace Corps is hard. It requires a lot from me. But I still don’t want to go to school.” Her mother placed her fork down. “Not yet anyway.” Asha quickly inserted that in to stop a fight that she could feel was brewing. “Maybe if I can just volunteer for a few months. Then go to school. I looked at the acceptance letters, and most of them allow me to start in the spring semester. I won’t lag far behind my friends. Besides, the volunteer work would help me decide what I want to do for my career. I’ll choose a school that offers a lot of majors. That way I can have plenty to choose from.”
Picking up her fork, and carefully chewing her food while deep in thought, her mother gently asked, “where do you want to go? What do you want to do?”
“South Africa. I want to teach the kids there about health.”
“I thought you wanted to build wells?”
“I do. But, I don’t have the skills. I wouldn’t even know where to begin. But health and water issues are related. Clean water save lives. But health education ensures that lives will continued to be saved.” Asha was intently cutting the chicken with her knife and fork that she couldn’t have seen the big smile that briefly appeared on her mother’s face.
After lunch, Asha asked her mother to go to the bedroom with her. She wanted to show her an e-mail from Mark.
I am back with the Peace Corps, this time in India. The rural village that I am in are suffering greatly from the lack of clean drinking water. They have a well, but it’s polluted. Women and children are sick. Most of the people here don’t even have enough money to feed themselves, let alone see a doctor. I am sending you this e-mail asking you to donate whatever amount you can to help us build a safe water system here. We will also purchase LifeStraws for people to use while they wait for their water system to be built. Attached is a picture to show you how desperate these people are.
The picture was of a young woman who was holding a bundle of cloth. The caption read:
A young mother holding her dead child. The child died from diarrhea. Diarrhea, easily treatable, is the second leading cause in infant mortality worldwide, especially in regions without clean drinking water.
“Oh, that’s terrible,” Asha’s mother spoke softly.
“Mom, just look at her face. She’s not sad and she’s not angry. She looks…”
“Defeated,” her mother could not have chosen a better word. “It’s as if this wasn’t the first time she had loss a child to diarrhea. She’s giving up.” Her mother sighed. “Asha, I’m happy and proud that you feel like helping others. But I’m just concerned about your safety. Can’t you just raise some money here for, whatever that life straw thing is, and send it to Mark? Why do you have to leave?”
“Mom, first of, LifeStraws are awesome. They’re literally straws that you carry around and they filter whatever water you are drinking. You can stick the straw in a pond and suck up the water and it gets filtered.” Asha couldn’t believe that her mother didn’t know what LifeStraws were.
“Okay, so LifeStraws are great. We can raise the money and buy a whole bunch and send it to Mark.” Her mother was exasperatedly trying to convince her daughter to not embark on what she considered to be a lofty and dangerous mission.
“No, Mom. I don’t want to just raise money. I want to travel. I want to help people with my bare hands.” This was the only thing she ever felt passionate about and the thought of not being able to pursue it was frightening her. “I found an organization, They have volunteer programs for up to six months. I’ll come back in time for school. Mom, I really want to do this.”
“I know you do.” Her mother continued to stare at her daughter, not knowing how else to convince her to stay. “Why don’t we talk more about this tonight? Get more information about the volunteer work, get the forms, choose the school you want to go to, and we’ll sit down and sort things out. Okay?”
“Okay,” Asha smiled as her mother kissed her on the forehead before walking out of the room. Returning to her window that was covered with water droplets, Asha looked out at the empty street. So this is what passion feels like. I love it.
Behind the Story: Making a Difference
The idea that one person can make a difference in the world may seem far-fetched. However, it has been known to happen. This story was inspired by extraordinary people whom I came across while I was researching for my project. The story of William’s windmills is true. According to “William’s Story,” William Kamkwamba is still active today in building electrical sources for his community (http://movingwindmills.org/story). Ryan’s story is also true. Ryan Hreljac first started a water well project when he was only eight years old. He is now an adult and still has the passion to build wells in countries where water is scarce. He created the Ryan’s Well Foundation which has built 518 wells in 16 countries and serves 640,000 people (http://www.ryanswell.ca/story/index.html).
The picture that Asha saw of the young mother holding her dead child was based on the documentary, Runny Dry by Jim Thebaut (http://www.runningdry.org). I saw this documentary when I took my Global Water Issues class during my graduate studies. The image of the young woman laying down a dead child whom had been bundled up in white cloth, unto what seemed like a back of a truck already filled with other bodies, stuck with me. Her expression surprised and saddens me. So many children in the world are dying because they don’t have access to clean drinking water. To me, that is a great loss in humanity’s potential. The children who died could have been the next William Kamkwamba or Ryan Hreljac. They could have been the next influential figure of the world. They could have been the ones to help so many others and to bring their country out of poverty and create peace. But we will never know if they could have become those things, because their lives were taken away so quickly by something that could have been easily prevented.
The LifeStraw is a new life-saving technology that costs less than ten dollars each. Each LifeStraw lasts for a year and it filters out most water pollutants, bacteria, and viruses. Although it doesn’t cost much, those living in poverty cannot afford to buy them. You can find out more about the LifeStraw technology and what you can do to donate LifeStraws to those living in poverty here:
While attending the Fifth World Water Forum in March 2009, I met Rebecca West, the President of Water Environment Federation based in South Carolina. She shared a story with me that made me realize how precious water is to some people. I asked her what was her most memorable experience in her years of implementing water projects. She said:
The day that a drinking water well was completed in a village outside of Iringa, Tanzania. The people in that village were ecstatic and thanked all of us on the team that helped with the well. Their children were dancing and the elderly ladies in the village were so excited. The thought that a well could provide such joy is amazing. This vividly reminded me that we take so much for granted, especially in the US and have so much to be thankful for.
It is important to mind our own water resources and to take care of them so that future generations can have water to drink. It is also important to help others in need because there is only one planet that we live on, and we all need water. Some may ask, why is it important to help others in a different nation? One reason is for economics. The United States depends on various countries for oil and food. For example, the US gets some of its oil from Nigeria. If the people of Nigeria are dying because of the lack of clean water, the US’ economy will be affected. The United States depends on developing nations for food. If the people of that nation are ill and cannot harvest the rice, wheat, nuts, and other commodities, the United States will not be able to have those foods for their citizens. Another reason is for health concerns, especially outbreaks. It is uncommon for disease outbreaks to come from the United States or a developed nation. It usually stems from developing nations with poor water systems. Diseases know no boundaries and will travel throughout the globe. By helping other nations with their water issues, you are ensuring your own safety (Fonjweng). By helping others, you will also gain an invaluable experience and a deeper appreciation of the life that you have. Perhaps you can find your life’s passion when you help others less fortunate than you.
To see how you can help, you can check out these organizations:
Global Volunteer Network provides short-term volunteer programs all over the world. Volunteers can choose to work in various fields such as nature conservation, teaching health and hygiene, providing medical assistance, and other options.
The Peace Corps engages in various volunteer program worldwide. Most projects are long term and require you to already have experience and skills in certain industries. You need to be over 18 years old in order to join.
The Philadelphia Global Water Initiative works with Engineers Without Borders and other organizations to help bring water systems to certain villages in the developing communities. Volunteers can also apply for their Water Ambassadors Program where students are trained to raise global water issues awareness to local high schools.
The Rotary Club of Fort Lauderdale has a LifeStraw project where you can donate money to the purchasing and delivering of LifeStraws to people in Tanzania, Kenya, Malawi, and Ghana.
Fonjweng, Godlove. Phone Interview. 28 July 2009.
Running Dry. Prod. Jim Thebaut. The Chronicles Group, 2006 <http://www.runningdry.org>.
Ryan’s Story. Ryan’s Well Foundation. 26 Sept. 2009 <http://www.ryanswell.ca/story/index.html>.
West, Rebecca. E-mail correspondence. 13 Apr. 2009.
William’s Story. 2009. Moving Windmills Project. 26 Sept. 2009. <http://movingwindmills.org/story>.