Water is Life

Water is life.

It’s an axiom I’ve heard countless times, reinforced by friends who work tirelessly to provide safe wells in developing countries. It’s the simple truth that compels two young girls I featured in a recent article for Presbyterians Today. Convicted before age ten by the news that unmet sisters around the world were missing school in order to haul tainted drinking water from streams and rivers, they formed Paper for Water.

Water is life, and on a recent trip to Zambia, I experienced its precious and simple centrality.

The Director of the Shallow Well Department, Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, Zambia Presbytery, took us on a tour. We bounced over rutted roads, dust billowing in our wake, to reach the village of Tamashu. Huts with thatched roofs, open cooking fires, boys thrashing soybeans in the dirt, barefoot children, chickens, goats and dogs. A timeless tableau. The villagers greeted us with equal measures of curiosity and hospitality; it is rare to see mzungos in their midst.

Together we walked down a pathway towards a creek bed. First, we saw the former water supply, a cloudy pool exposed to the elements, frequented by animals, subject to runoff from the village’s latrines. Through our interpreter, we heard in Chitumbuka that the water caused intestinal problems, especially among children.

Then, just ten yards away, we saw the shallow well, a simple hand pump at the center of a concrete perimeter and runoff channel. The drill had found fresh water at 8.5 meters (28 feet). That short depth made all the difference for the microcosm of Tamashu.

As bemused villagers gathered around us, we took turns pumping precious, clear H20 into a plastic bucket. A couple of us tried to balance that container on our heads, secretly marveling at the throngs of women who carry baggage of all types along Zambian roadways. Our clumsiness elicited laughter that was contagious.

It’s a well-worn reaction for travelers in developing countries, but it is nonetheless life-changing if we embrace it. WE HAVE SO MUCH WE TAKE FOR GRANTED! In my case, multiple showers at home, flush toilets, drinkable water pouring from any spigot, the luxury of irrigating my yard with enough liquid to hydrate this entire village.

Then I found out the cost of installing one of these miracle pumps. $450 in U.S. currency. Let me say that again: $450.

There’s a passage in the New Testament book of James. It says: “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”

For a moment, lifting my eyes to clouds in the bluest African sky, I contextualized these verses. What if I thanked these villagers for their hospitality, even saying “God bless you,” then left and forgot how many others are still dipping buckets into polluted streams? What if I failed to embrace my essential connectedness to these brothers and sisters half-a-world from my home?

This trip changed me. In my own small way – through family offerings and the efforts of my nonprofit, Torch of Faith – I will help finance future wells.

Why? Because water is life. Because we are all connected. Because it is a privilege to give.

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