Teaching high school students is a tough job. Inspiring students to volunteer for non-profit organizations is an almost impossible task. Luckily, the school that I’m working with requires students to do community service for graduation. I came to the high school one day upon the request of my colleague. They were learning about global water issues and what I’m doing to help people in poverty get clean drinking water. I usually talk to the students about the various water projects that I worked on throughout the years, like drilling wells, piping water from a mountain spring to a village, educating students on water and sanitation. I would also tell the students that it’s important for everyone to conserve water and be mindful of every drop that they use. One day, a student asked me, “what inspired you to work on water projects?” That was a tough question. I never asked myself that before.
Ever since Travis moved to college, Mom and Dad were on my case about my schoolwork. I was just a freshman in high school. College was the furthest thing on my mind. The conversation usually came up during dinner. Mom would go on and on about how well Travis was doing in college, that he was being inducted to an honor society and that companies were already recruiting him for jobs. She was in denial. I know my brother. He was probably having a great time flirting with girls and going to parties. He could sweet talk his way out of trouble, he had been doing that since middle school. But Mom was just proud that her eldest child was in college and was now a grown “man.” If he was a man, he wouldn’t be bringing home his entire closet so that Mom could wash his dirty clothes. He would have done that on campus. He wasn’t that great, just a smart, conniving, older brother.
“So, Lily, have you thought about college yet?” Whenever she asked this, she would put down her fork and give me a long stare. As if that stare of hers was going to inspire me to research about colleges after dinner.
“Mom, I’m still struggling to survive high school. I’ll think about college later.” That’s my usual response. And her usual response would be a loud sigh.
“We’re just trying to help,” Dad said. He was usually the one that could sense the tension between my mother and me. He tried not to take sides, but I think he had to take her side if he wanted to sleep in his bedroom. “It’s not too early to think about college. We can take our time visiting colleges and looking into financial aid options.”
As Mom talked more about Travis and how wonderful it would be to have both her children in college, I gulped down my dinner.
“Well, I’m done with dinner. I would help you clean up, but Ms. Mitchell wants us to write to our pen-pal tonight. And you know me, I’m a slow writer.” Before my parents could say anything, I dashed out of the room.
I didn’t lie to my parents about being a slow writer. Every time I sat in front of the computer, I just stared at the blank white document. Then I would make the mistake of checking my e-mail, chatting with my friends, checking my webpage. The next thing I know, it’s midnight and the only thing on the document was my name. I know I shouldn’t be distracted, but I just couldn’t help it.
Ms. Mitchell went to Kenya last year doing some volunteer work. She said that a few years ago, there was a severe drought and a lot of the families left the village. Ms. Abasi, the teacher in the village, stayed because she had nowhere else to go. She was the one who contacted some American humanitarian organizations to have water tanks built in the village. Ms. Mitchell was one of the volunteers that helped build the tanks. While Ms. Mitchell was there, she met a bunch of students and planned a year-long project where our class would contact the Kenyan students and exchange e-mails at least once a week. At the end of the year, we would compile all our e-mails, and write a ten-page report on what we learned. I think the ten-page report was overkill. We’re already writing every week, why do we have to write a report? I would bring that up in class, but Ms. Mitchell was not the kind of teacher that you could negotiate with. In fact, she was the only teacher that Travis could not sweet talk his way out of handing in assignments late.
My pen-pal’s name is Kioni. According to Ms. Mitchell, she’s a year younger than me and very curious about American culture. I’m supposed to write an introductory letter tonight.
No, how about,
The blinking cursor stayed by the comma for a while.
No, too perky,
There, that’s right. Now, what to write?
I was dying to check my e-mail. Maybe she wrote to me first and all I had to do was answer her questions? But I knew that was not true since Ms. Mitchell said that we would be the ones initiating the e-mails. Okay, I need to get this over with.
My name in Lily Weatherfield. I am a freshman at Hudson Valley High School. How are you? I am doing okay. Hope everything is well and talk to you soon!
I sent the letter and felt relieved. That was one homework assignment out of the way, and I wouldn’t need to write another e-mail to her until next week. I was working on my history report, well, more like going onto different websites, when the electricity went out. The sudden darkness startled me. The howling wind and torrential rain that was pounding on my window did not help lighten up the mood either. Dad came in the room with an electrical lantern.
“Here you go, Lily. Guess you’ll be sleeping early tonight.”
“Thanks, Dad.” I smiled as he left the room. I was really hoping that the electricity would not come back on. That meant that I wouldn’t be able to do my homework and my teachers would have to give me an extension. For once, my wishes were heard. Midnight rolled around and I could hear Mom stumbling around the kitchen. She hated leaving dirty dishes lying around, so she was tidying up the kitchen in the dark. Dad, like me, was enjoying the darkness. I could hear him snoring. I was spending the time reading my magazines by the lantern until I got sleepy. Turned off the lantern and dozed until morning.
I’m a heavy sleeper. I will not wake up unless my alarm clock is set on the loudest setting. Since the electricity did not come back on last night, my alarm clock sat in silence. It was dark and rainy out, the birds were hiding in trees and the sun was taking a day off. I woke up to the sound of my mother pounding on the door and frantically yelling, “It’s seven o’clock! You’re suppose to be dressed and out of the house by now!”
“Okay,” I said in my grumpy and groggy morning voice. I am not a cheery morning person.
By the time I got dressed and packed my bag, I already missed my school bus. As I made my way downstairs, Mom yelled from the kitchen.
“Lily! Are you ready?”
“Yeah, I’m putting on my shoes.”
She appeared by the door, fully dressed in her fall jacket and boots.
“Okay, I packed breakfast and lunch.” She opened my bookbag and stuffed down a brown paper bag. “ I’ll drive you to school.”
“Oh, I thought Dad took the car. I was going to take the bus.”
“No, you’ll be really late if you take the bus. Dad’s in the basement. It’s flooded, so he has to wait for the handyman to come. Let’s go. Don’t forget your umbrella.”
Mom shoved a repulsive pink umbrella into my hands.
“Eww, Mom, it’s pink!”
“It’s an umbrella. Deal with it.”
Before I could protest some more, she nudged me through the door. It was still pouring out. The autumn leaves littered the road. The once black paved driveway was now a mosaic of yellows, reds, oranges, and browns. It felt like I just stepped into a Monet painting.
Unluckily, I made it in time to Ms. Mitchell’s class. As I settled down, I could hear my classmates whispering to each other about their e-mails. Justin wrote a page long e-mail about being on the swim team. Crystal was showing a printed out copy of her e-mail and her pen-pal’s response. I just stared at the chalkboard, hoping that I could vanish.
“So, I trust that everyone sent out their introductory e-mails last night?” Ms. Mitchell asked the class. Some of the students nodded, others said “yes” under their breaths. I continued to stare at the chalkboard. “Now, as you know, because you sent the e-mails out through the classes’ web account, I can see what you’ve written. It’s a way to make sure that you are doing your work and I can see the quality of your work.”
My stomach began to churn. I forgot that Ms. Mitchell could check the e-mails.
“I was delighted to see how some of you really put some thought into your e-mails. Remember, the Kenyan students want to learn more about you and about American culture. You also want to learn about them. So don’t feel shy asking questions.” She paused and I thought that she was staring at me when she said this. “The more you write and the more meaningful questions you ask, the better your grades will be. I don’t want a simple ‘how are you’ question.”
A chill ran down my back. I had to look away, so I pretended to write something in my notebook. I really hope nobody noticed me squirming in my seat. It’s only my third day of class and I already managed to get on Ms. Mitchell’s bad side.
It was still raining by the time I got home. Mom seemed less frantic now that there was electricity in the house. She was taking the opportunity to vacuum the carpets. I went to see Dad in the basement. He was wearing his rain gear and the water reached his knees.
“Hi Dad. Hi Tom,” I yelled from the basement stairs.
“Hey kiddo.” Tom liked to call me “kiddo.” I think it might be because he forgot my name. He’s not very good with names.
“How’s school?” Dad asked.
“Oh, the usual. Nothing much,” I tried to suppress the nauseous feeling when I thought about Ms. Mitchell staring at me. “What’s up with the basement?”
“The pump broke. I guess it couldn’t handle all this rain,” Tom said. “Don’t worry, your dad and I installed a brand new one and you’ll have a dry basement in no time.”
I smiled and left for my room. I couldn’t remember the last time I went for a whole night without checking my e-mail. Excitedly, I turned on the computer and waited for the webpage to load. I wonder how many e-mails I got. I wondered if Tris finalized the concert plans yet.
My e-mail account was full of junk.
Try out the latest weight loss plan for free!
There are available singles in your area! Free first month’s membership.
Get your degree in just 14 months with the Garber Institute!
Shop for free when you sign up!
No e-mails from Tris. It would be a while before dinner was ready, so I decided to check my account on my class’s web page. Next to an image of an unopened envelope, was a message written in capital letters: HI LILY! THIS IS KIONI.
Wow, I guess she was really excited.
Thank you for your e-mail. I am so excited to be part of the pen-pal program. I never talked to anyone from America before, except to Ms. Mitchell when she visited us last year. She’s a great teacher, we had so much fun when she was here. You asked me how I am doing. I’m doing okay, nothing new (except for the pen-pal program! I get to use the computer at school every morning and afternoon. It’s usually something that the older kids get to do, but since Ms. Abasi knew I was a slow typist, she allowed me to come here twice a day!). How often are you on the computer? Are you a fast writer?
Today, we learned about the hydrologic cycle. I didn’t really understand everything. The picture that Ms. Abasi showed seemed simple. The water from the ocean goes into the clouds, it rains, the water goes through the ground, and back into the ocean. I don’t think that cycle exists where I live. It hardly rains and there’s no ocean. Have you ever been to the ocean? Is it really as blue and big as the sky? How does it smell? How does it taste? Is it also true that the water you drink is sweet? My friend said that Americans have water in their homes and can drink the sweet water whenever they want. He said that you have so much water that you can wash yourself every day, in the privacy of your own home. But how can you have running water in your house? Wouldn’t the water splash everywhere and make a mess? Is there a hole in your floor where the water comes up?
I have so much to ask you! But it’s getting late and I still need to fetch water before going home. I’m really excited to hear back from you. Take care!
My heart was beating quickly and my mind was buzzing. So many questions, and so much excitement. I couldn’t believe Kioni was taking this assignment so seriously. Didn’t she have something better to do? And what the heck was a hydrologic cycle? I’m a believer in minimalism. Don’t do anything beyond what you are required to do. That’s why I decided not to write back to Kioni. Ms. Mitchell said that I just needed to write at least once a week, and since I already did it this week, I didn’t need to write back yet. Mom called for dinner and I just turned off my computer. I didn’t check my school’s e-mail until the following Monday.
There was an unopened e-mail from Kioni.
Subject: Hi Lily! Are you okay?
It’s been almost a week and I haven’t heard back from you yet. My friends all got their e-mails from your classmates. I was wondering if you were okay. Are you sick? My mom has some good herbal recipes for colds and stomach aches. Let me know if you need them and I’ll send you the recipes!
Hope you are okay.
I felt like a big jerk. Kioni must have checked her e-mails everyday to see if I responded. She was waiting for me and I just ignored her. Guilt made my stomach queasy, so I went downstairs to get seltzer water. Dinner was ready so I couldn’t get back to my room until I finished my food. The chicken cutlets didn’t taste good. It wasn’t my mother’s cooking, it was because my mind was on the e-mails that Kioni wrote. She actually thought that I was sick because I didn’t e-mail her back? She didn’t even know me, and yet she cared enough to worry about me and offer her mother’s herbal recipes? I wanted to go straight to my room but Dad said that I had to help Mom clean up. Cleaning the dishes was never fun for me. It was worse today, knowing that I needed to write back to Kioni right away. Once I put the soap and turned on the dishwasher, I crept to my room.
I’m sorry for not getting back to you sooner. My house lost electricity and I couldn’t check my computer. (I know, it’s a lie. But I couldn’t tell her that I was a lazy jerk!) I’m not sick, so don’t worry about the recipes. To answer your questions, well, my computer is in my bedroom. I usually go on it every afternoon when I come back from school. I do my homework on the computer and talk to my friends on it as well. I’m a fast typist, but a slow writer. What I mean is that it’s difficult for me to write papers. It’s not my favorite part of being a student.
I wish I could send some rain over to you! It’s been pouring non-stop for the past two days now. My basement is flooded. My dad and a handyman are still fixing the pump. They said that the water should be pumped out soon. But the things that we stored down there, like my old clothes, my mother’s shoes, the Christmas decorations, are probably all ruined by now. It’s okay though, I had no plans to use those things anymore.
I usually go to the ocean every summer. It’s about a two-hour drive from my house. My dad would rent a beach house and we would stay for a week. I’ve heard of oceans as big and blue as the sky, but not the ocean that I go to. I mean, it’s huge, don’t get me wrong. It’s the Atlantic Ocean after all. But it’s not blue. More like greenish gray. I don’t think it’s very clean. Sometimes I would see plastic bags floating around. So I would just sunbathe and occasionally walk on the shore. It’s salty water, so it smells and taste salty.
I don’t understand what you mean when you asked about my water tasting sweet and about having water in my house. Water just tastes like bland. I mean there’s soda and fruit juices where sugar is added to the water which makes it sweet, but the water from our faucets has no sugar added to it. We don’t have a hole in the ground where water comes up (well, except for the flooded basement, which is not normal). We have faucets. When we want water, we just turn on the faucet and water flows out into the sink. The dirty water or water that we don’t use goes down the drain. Don’t you have water in your house? You don’t shower every day? I have to do that, my mom makes me do it ever since I was little. What do you mean you have to fetch water? You have to go to a well?
Two days passed by and Kioni did not respond. Now I know how she felt. On the third day, I was excited to see an unopened e-mail in my mailbox.
I’m sorry that I didn’t reply to you sooner. I missed school for about three days now, because it’s that time of the month (you know, you’re a girl too!) and there are no latrines around school. It’s just a hassle and so embarrassing to go to school and have to go to the bushes every few hours. Sometimes I wish that I was born a boy, that way, I can go to school everyday. But every girl in my village misses their classes whenever their monthly friend comes along. Anyway, I’m sure you don’t want me to go into further details about that!
To my embarrassment, I didn’t know what a basement was. I asked Ms. Abasi and she told me. I can’t imagine having a room underneath the ground. We have nothing like that here. I am sorry that it was flooded, but isn’t that a good thing? That way, you have lots of water to use when it doesn’t rain. I wish I had a room full of water. That would save me so much time during the dry season. I wouldn’t need to go get water.
To answer your questions, Ms. Mitchell and other volunteers came to our village and installed water tanks in our compounds. When it rains, the water gets stored in the tanks. We use that water during the dry season. So my family and I use the rainwater for cooking and drinking. Now that the tanks are dried, we have to go find water. We don’t have a well, so we go to a stream that’s about an hour walk away. It’s my responsibility to get the water from the stream every morning before school and every afternoon after school. But lately, the stream has dried up. So we look for water further upstream and in potholes for leftover water. My sister and I went to the mountain yesterday where there was a spring that cows drink from. It took us the whole day to get the water! I hate the water chore, but it’s important. Since there’s so little water at home, we have to wash ourselves and our clothes in the stream when it is running.
Ms. Abasi showed me a picture of a tap. I think it’s also called a faucet, right? It must be wonderful to have that in your house! So what do you do with the time that you saved? I imagined that if I had a tap in my house, I would have more time to read my books and write my papers. That way, Ms. Abasi wouldn’t give me such bad grades!
One day in class, Ms. Mitchell wanted all of us to share one or two things that we found interesting from the e-mails and what we learned from our pen-pals. I sunk deep into my chair hoping that she would forget that I was there. The first person up was Jenny. She was shaking a bit as she stood up in front of the class.
“So, my pen-pal is Gathee. One interesting thing I learned was that after school, he goes to the field and help his dad with the cattle. He stays until late afternoon and then he has to get water from a stream to bring to his mom. He would have dinner with his family, but not his dad. Gathee said that since there’s not a lot of food, his dad would eat three times a week. But because he was still young, he gets to eat dinner every day with his sisters and mother. The sad thing is that when he gets older and works in the field more often, he won’t be able to eat every day.”
Jenny paused and looked around uncomfortably. “Um, that’s it.”
“Thank you, Jenny,” said Ms. Mitchell. “You can go back to your seat. Todd, you’re up next.”
Todd was as nervous as Jenny. He was shaking and spoke softly.
“Uh, my pen-pal is Makena, and….”
“Todd, I can barely hear you and I’m three feet away. Speak louder and lift up your head,” Ms. Mitchell interrupted.
Todd squirmed a bit before he continued with his presentation in a slightly louder voice. “My pen-pal is Makena, she’s a girl. Um, an interesting thing, um, it’s also about dinner.” Jenny smiled and gave Todd a nod. “Well, Makena said that when they eat dinner, it’s from one big bowl. It’s not like over here where everyone sits around a table and has his own plate. There, they sit on the floor around a big bowl. There’s a girl bowl for all the girls in the family, and a boy bowl for all the boys. They would just dig in, with their hands. But you can never use your left hand, only your right. She said that your right hand is for eating and the left hand is for when you go to the bathroom. So, it’s very important to wash your hands before eating. The only thing is that there’s no soap. They would use soap if they could afford it, but it’s expensive over there. So, I told her that I would send her some soap. I just need to go to the post office tomorrow.” He stared at the floor for a while and then turned his head to Ms. Mitchell.
“Good report, Todd,” said Ms. Mitchell. “I’m sure she’ll be excited to receive your mail. You can sit down. Jeannette, you’re next.”
When Jeannette walked up to the front of the room, all the boys held their breath and followed her slender body in a tight sweater dress. You can say she’s the popular girl in school where all the boys want to date her and all the girls are jealous of her. Jeannette was confident, always thriving in the limelight.
“My pen-pal is Ngare,” said Jeannette loudly. “He talked about the water tank that was recently installed on his family’s compound. The tank stores rainwater for them to use during the dry season. I asked him how he would get water before the water tank was installed. He said that his siblings and him would sometimes miss school so that they could walk and find water on the roads or streams. I mentioned to him that when I went to Argentina for an exchange program, I walked into a hut in a rural area. When it began to rain, the children and the mother would scramble to find pots and pans and put on the hut’s floor. The rain that dripped through the roof was collected in the pots and pans. Children will also go out into the field and scoop water up from potholes and ditches. The water collected was carefully portioned during the dry season. Ngare said that it was similar to how he used to collect water before the water tanks were built. I guess the lack of clean water for people in rural areas is a global issue.”
“Thank you, Jeannette” Ms. Mitchell said. As Jeannette walked back to her seat, I sunk deeper into my seat. Please, let me be the last one. I don’t know what to say.
“Lily, you’re next.”
A tight knot formed in my stomach. I hesitated a bit before clumsily getting out of my chair.
“My pen-pal is Kioni.” Pause. “Um, one of the things that stuck in my mind was that she missed school for several days because…” I could feel my face getting red.
“Yes?” said Ms. Mitchell.
“It’s a little embarrassing,” I replied as I swallowed hard.
“It’s okay. Go on.” Ms. Mitchell let out a weak smile.
“Well, she missed school because she had her period.” I could hear snickering all over the room, especially from the boys. “Kioni said that it’s normal for girls to miss their classes when they had their period because there weren’t any bathrooms in the school. The children go to the bushes to do their business, and it’s embarrassing and a hassle for her to do that when she has her period.” The laughter was getting louder.
“Be quiet!” Ms. Mitchell yelled at the class. “You are all lucky to have bathrooms in schools and in your houses. But the students that you communicate with in Kenya don’t have that luxury. It’s even worse for girls when they menstruate.” Kyle snickered. “Yes Kyle, women menstruate. It’s a fact of life and you should try to be sensitive to the women in your life. Anyway, girls in the community find it embarrassing to go to school when they have their periods, so they stay home and do their chores. It’s a different lifestyle than ours and we should not laugh at them.” The room hushed. “Go on, Lily.”
“Well, Kioni didn’t go into details about it. I guess it was embarrassing. But she mentioned that because water was scarce she couldn’t shower every day. The water she collects is used for drinking and cooking. In fact, she goes to the stream to wash herself and do laundry. But because it’s the dry season, the stream nearby dried up. So she has to walk up a mountain to a spring and collect her water from there. I told her about my flooded basement and she thought that I would be excited because it meant that I had water stored for the dry season. I didn’t understand her at first, but now I get it. For her, every drop counts. For her, there is a price on water that she has to be mindful of. For me, I just get water whenever I want straight from my faucet.”
“Thank you, Lily. Good job,” Ms. Mitchell smiled at me. Walking back to my seat, I felt relieved. My footsteps were light and moved effortlessly.
Ten other students presented after me. I knew I should have paid attention to all of them, but it was nearing lunchtime and my stomach was growling. Only Zach’s presentation caught my attention. Zach was part of the school’s track team. He’s a pretty good athlete, and quite handsome too. I’ve had a crush on him since middle school, but he barely knows that I exist. Who would notice a plain girl wearing t-shirts and jeans and beat up sneakers all the time?
Zach cleared his throat and spoke with his now deepened voice. It resonated like a perfectly built cello. “I asked Matu why the school had computers and access to the Internet when the village didn’t even have enough water and food to survive. Matu said that it’s because the telecommunications company bought the government. Almost every family in the village has a cell-phone. Some of them even have TVs. The government would encourage farmers to have these technologies and even helped pay for the services. Matu said that the company would make so much money and so would government officials whenever they sell a new cell-phone or provide Internet access. But when it comes to water issues, the government all of the sudden turns deaf or blind. Matu said that water issues are harder to solve than setting up computers or cell-phones. So the government leaves it up to individual farmers to find their own water. I think it’s wrong that Matu and his family can’t get help from the government when it’s clear that they are struggling to get their basic needs met.”
“Thank you, Zach,” Ms. Mitchell said. “So what would you suggest to Matu in order for him to have access to clean water?”
“I don’t really know,” said Zach. “Um, maybe, the village can protest to the government. Or they can get outside support, like from our school or organizations that help villages in need. That way, their water problems will be heard by the government and the officials may be more inclined to help.”
“Good idea. Now class, due tomorrow, I want you to write up ideas of what you can do here in order to help your peers in Kenya.” Ms. Mitchell had perfect timing. Once she finished her sentence, the bell rang, and the students rushed for lunch. It’s a bit ironic isn’t it? We just spent the whole class period talking about how students in Kenya don’t have enough food and water to survive, and yet we rush out to lunch in our school’s cafeteria that is filled with various foods and drinks, forgetting all about our pen-pals.
* * * * *
The end of May arrived quickly. The school year was coming to an end and students were excitedly talking about their summer plans. Jeannette was spending a month with her parents traveling around Europe. Zach got an internship in Washington, DC. Todd was going to Kenya with his family. He told me that he was going to visit Makena and already bought cases of soap for her. As for me, my summer was going to be a boring one. Dad was busy working and Mom visited the hospital everyday because of Grandma’s health. Travis got a summer job in Paris, lucky him. I looked for jobs, but no one wanted to hire me. I was looking forward to lying on the couch watching TV all day, every day, but Ms. Mitchell made a suggestion to my parents and they had been really pushing me on it. She suggested that I volunteer for Save the Water organization which does advocacy work in water conservation and raising funds for water projects in villages around the world. I hate parent-teacher nights.
Kioni and I kept contacting each other through our personal e-mails. We shared stories about school and family. She said that a group of volunteers from America came and installed water taps in her family compound. The water is piped down from the mountains, meaning that the village will have a continual source of water throughout the year. It now only takes her five minutes to walk to the water pump and get water. Kioni asked her mom if she could take showers everyday now that they could get water whenever they wanted. Her mom yelled at her for being wasteful. She said that the water might not last forever, one day it might go dry. So Kioni showered every three days and still cherished every drop of water she got. With the time that she saved from fetching water, she was able to do well in her classes. Kioni said that Ms. Abasi gave her high marks, the highest ever since she’s been in school. I bought a new pair of shoes and backpack for Kioni. She said that she was only allowed to wear shoes on Sundays when she goes to church. She walked barefoot on other days in order to save her shoes from wear and tear. I hoped that she would like her gift. Todd said that he would give Kioni the gift when he goes to visit the village.
My first day volunteering was awkward. I was the youngest one in the group. Everyone was over forty years old. They asked me why I was volunteering. I told them the truth, “Because my teacher suggested to my parents that I should and they forced me to.” Most of them just laughed when I told them that.
Ms. Johnson was my mentor. She’s a nice lady. Never married and doesn’t have kids. One day, while we were folding letters and stuffing them in envelopes, I asked her, “Why are you volunteering?”
Ms. Johnson replied, “because I’ve been so lucky in my life that I feel I should give back to those in need.”
“But you’re not getting anything in return. You’re not being paid and you don’t get gifts. So why do all this work for free?”
“It’s true. I don’t get anything in return, well, nothing materialistic anyway. It’s the feeling of doing something worthwhile, doing something important, that fulfills me. It makes me appreciate the life that I have more and more every day.” She smiled as subtle crow’s feet appeared around her eyes. For a seventy-year-old, she looks pretty darn good. I guess volunteering kept her young.
That summer, we had a drought. Our local government officials appeared on the evening news, encouraging people to conserve water. The water reservoir that fed the town was running low, and we had a dry spring season. People were told not to water their lawns, take short showers, turn the faucet off when brushing their teeth, fix leaks in the house, flush toilets sparingly. The news anchors would repeat the old rhyme: If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down. To my mother’s dismay, she would let the dirty dishes pile up in the dishwasher until there was a full load. She would also let the laundry pile up until she could do the biggest load on the washing machine. Our lawn was dusty and brown, my mother’s roses wilted in the sun. At the dinner table, she would complain about our neighbors.
“The Robinsons were watering their lawns again. I woke up early and saw that their sprinklers were on.”
“Oh, honey, let it go. There’s no need to spy on them,” Dad replied.
“I wasn’t spying, I just happened to see their sprinklers on.”
“Look, are you going to be the one that tells them that they can’t water their lawns?”
“No,” Mom looked away, “I’m not the police. But the police should give them a warning or something. They’re sucking up precious water from the reservoir.”
“The police will probably notice that they are the only ones with the green lawn on our block. I’m sure they’ll get their warning soon.” Dad sneaked a smile and winked at me. It was his way of lightening up the mood during dinner.
Some of our neighbors installed well pumps in their backyards. The government officials said that they do not encourage people to do this since the town is on top of a non-renewable aquifer, meaning, once the water is taken out, it will take a very long time for the aquifer to fill up again, perhaps millions of years. The aquifers should be used as a last resort, when the reservoir is completely dried up. But our neighbors got the wells anyway. They said that it’s underneath their land and that they can tap into the water if they wanted to. Besides, it’s not like they are going to use all of the water up. This might be true, but they did not consider that their children or grandchildren might not have water during their lifetime. This town will be abandoned if there is no water.
Save the Water was swamped with projects. Every day was a new project that I worked on. Ms. Johnson and I would go to summer school and teach the kids there about the drought and how to conserve water. The kids didn’t care, they didn’t want to be in school in the first place. But we taught them anyway and handed out materials. On other days, we would go into the street and reminded people to conserve water. Most of the time, people would just rush by without even turning their heads to look at us. The mean ones would tell us to mind our own business or that we were being annoying.
“Ugh, this is so frustrating!” I complained to Ms. Johnson one day. “We’re out here, trying to spread the message for their own good, and nobody listens. I bet you they go home and still take long showers and water their lawns.”
“Some people just don’t understand that individual actions determine the community’s future. They just don’t get that this is a community problem and that everyone needs to pitch in to help solve the water issue.” Ms. Johnson was breathing heavily in the heat. She volunteered everyday and talked to those who would talk to her.
“So why are we still here when it’s not doing any good? Why don’t we form a group and demand the government to do something?”
Ms. Johnson chuckled a bit. “Oh, I remember I used to be spunky like you when I was young. Always wanting to demand the government to do things. Well, it’s true, they should do something. But they can’t make it rain. They can’t put more water in the reservoir. They can’t solve everything. But, they do understand the situation and that is why they are working with us and other organizations to tell people to conserve water. They understand that it’s a community effort. You know, we are lucky to have the local government on our side. In some countries, they just turn the other way.”
Her response made me think about Zach’s presentation on how the government ignored water issues that had stricken those in rural areas. Kioni and her community had to rely on foreign volunteers to help them build a water system. We were lucky in that the government was working with non-profit organizations to help our community through the drought. I just wished that the people here understood how lucky they were to have running water in their houses and a government that cared about the community. The people who walked by Ms. Johnson and me wouldn’t survive a day in Kioni’s shoes.
“Just keep on educating people.” Ms. Johnson said. “One day, they’ll understand.”
I suppose that’s how I came to work on water projects. I kept on teaching and talking to people. Kioni and I still talk to each other. She’s getting a degree in London and started a water project group at her university. She’s leading a team to her Kenyan community to build more water tanks and systems. It’s the little people that have big hearts that can make a difference.
Behind the Story: The Price of Water
This story encompasses several experiences from people from different regions. For example, when Kioni asked Lily how she had running water in her house and if that would make a mess, that was based on Godlove Fonjweng’s experience as a child. Mr. Fonjweng is one of the founding members of the Philadelphia Global Water Initiative (www.pgwi.org). As a child growing up in Cameroon, he had to fetch water from streams before and after school. Sometimes, children would meet up with their parents after school in order to help with the farm. Before returning home in the evenings, they would go to a spring and bring the water back to the house. He heard of water taps in houses, but didn’t really understood how it worked:
When I was very young, I heard that some people had water in their house. I had this imagination [of] how water could be in their house. And I wondered why the water was not splashing all over the place and making [it] messy. I didn’t really understand the concept of the tap where you can open and close…of course, it eventually became clear to me later on what it was. But I thought it was interesting that I felt sorry for those who had piped water in their homes.
In arid climates, rainwater is precious. Joseph ole Tipanko is a member of the Maasai tribe in Kenya. He explained that the tribe depended on rainwater and water ponds. Women would walk 5 to 10 miles to search for water. When they got the water, they would carry 50 liters back home. With the installation of water tanks, they could harvest rainwater. Each tank holds 4000 liters, which serves the village for a month. Water tanks were installed on school compounds. This meant that school children spent less hours outside of their classroom and more time studying. The water tanks are short term solutions. During droughts, the tanks will be dry and the villagers will have to spend their whole day finding water.
In a different part of Kenya, a community once suffered from severe droughts. Now, with help from Keiyo Soy Ministries and its partners, the community has gravity-fed water systems, providing a part of the population with continual source of water. This was an inspiration for the part of the story about Kioni’s village receiving foreign help. This was based on Dr. Elijah Korich’s Katumoi Water Project. Dr. Korich grew up in impoverish conditions and explained about the hardships:
We would spend half the day going long distances to get water. [We] even travel[ed] to get water in potholes or the river [if it was not dried up]. We would bring dirty water. Water that you don’t even want to wash your hands with. But that’s all the water we have.
As a child, he had to worry about food and water. Instead of going to school and worrying about his studies or doing his homework, or even having fun, he said that “some of us didn’t have a childhood because life was hard, we didn’t have any time for fun. We struggled for survival, struggled to live.” Dr. Korich knew from an early age that water was a precious commodity. The water collected was used for cooking and drinking. The villagers would go to the river to wash themselves and do their laundry there. But they always brought water home. He left for the United States and founded Keiyo Soy Ministries. For several years, he went back to his Kenyan community and worked on a water project that brought water from the nearby mountains to the community’s compounds. Dr. Korich could see the change in the landscape and the spirit of the people after receiving the water system. People grew small gardens of fruits and vegetables. Women were saying that they were healthier and that their teeth were cleaner. You can contact Dr. Korich and find out more about the water project on Keiyo Soy Ministries’ website: http://www.ksmministries.com/.
There are other parts of the story that are based on real accounts. Makena’s dinner story was based on Sami Buisson-Daniel’s experience in Mali. She was traveling and volunteering in a remote region and would join the women of the village for dinner. Ms. Buisson-Daniel explained that it was important to wash her hands before digging into a big bowl of food that she shared with her friends. It was also very important to remember that the right hand is for eating and the left hand is for wiping oneself after doing his/her business in the bushes. Perhaps that’s where the customary handshake with the right hand came from!
The Argentinean story was also true. Vivian L. de Vignaroli is the Director of the Department of Education at Asociación de Amigos de la Patagonia. She once led a group of students from Buenos Aires to a very dry, rural, and poor area in Argentina. The humble huts were made from cow manure, soil and water. The students entered a small hut when it began to rain. The family members that greeted them started bringing pots and pans and putting them everywhere in the hut to collect the rainwater. Even the children went out to collect water in ditches. The students understood the meaning of “every drop counts” that day. You can find more information about Asociación de Amigos de la Patagonia here: http://www.aapatagonia.org.ar/.
One of the volunteers that traveled with Dr. Korich to Kenya for the Katumoi Water Project mentioned that everywhere she looked, no one had shoes on. Kelly Densen attended the water tower opening ceremony and help taught lessons in the community’s school. She noticed that the children did not have shoes. In the morning, she could see children walking a few miles to school, with their bare feet. It was explained to her that most of the children and adults in the community only have one pair of shoes. In order to prolong the life of the shoe, they only wear them on Sundays when they go to church. For her, this was a humbling experience. She brought three pairs of shoes on her two-week trip. At the end of her trip, she came back with only the pair of shoes that she was wearing.
When we have a plethora of food, water, and even shoes, we tend to become wasteful. Some forget that being able to turn on the tap and have crisp clean water running endlessly is a privilege and not a right. Because it is in our lifestyle and habits to keep the faucet running when brushing our teeth, to always water our lawns, or to take long showers, it is hard to think that one day, the abundance of water that we have will be gone. It is even harder to break the wasteful habit and conserve water for the generations after us. Those who have to fetch water and decide whether or not they should save the collected water for drinking or cooking for the day know the value of water. They know that every drop counts and they make every drop count. For those who currently have an abundance of water, conserve it, prolong the abundance for your children and grandchildren. Help those in other nations that do not have access to clean water. As Dr. Korich once said to me, “we either live together, we survive together, or we die together.”
Buisson-Daniel, Sami. Interview. 21 Aug. 2009.
Densen, Kelly. Phone Interview. 25 Jul. 2009.
Fonjweng, Godlove. Phone Interview. 28 July 2009.
Korich, Elijah. Phone Interview. 27 Sept. 2009.
Tipanko, Joseph ole. Interview. 21 Apr. 2009.
Vignaroli, Vivian. Interview. 20 Mar. 2009.