A couple of people have asked me about the water walk that I alluded to a few weeks ago so I thought I’d do a post about it.
The walk for water is a grueling task that, sadly, is the daily reality for many millions of women and children all over the world. It is something I have witnessed first hand hundreds of times, but have never actually attempted before.
A few weeks ago, I was in the northern part of the country with a couple of members of our Austin team and we were going to visit the potential site of a new water project. In order to really understand the scope of the need , we decided to follow some women from the village on their daily walk for water. We wanted to see how far they had to go, what obstacles they had to pass, and how bad the water they collected was. What we saw was shocking.
As I followed, the women, camera in hand, trying to capture the looks on their faces and the way their trained feet traversed the rocky ground, I was overcome by just how difficult it was for them to gather the water every day. This was one of the most challenging water walks I had ever witnessed. The rocky ground was full of cracks and crevices and it was so uneven, I considered a blessing from God that I managed to get across it without spraining an ankle. The fact that these women did it, barefoot, jerry cans in hand and children on their backs, was a miracle. The walk took nearly 40 minutes, the last 10 of which were spent descending a very rocky and steep gorge. I felt like a little mountain goat, walking along these narrow paths – climbing at some points – as parts of the gorge were actually as steep as the face of a cliff.
It was very, very difficult. And the only thing I had to carry was my camera. How on earth were these women doing it? Unbelievable.
When we got to the bottom, I saw the spring that these women were collecting water from. It was so foul. As I snapped pictures, one of the elderly women – bent double, her knobby knees poking out from under her skirt as she crouched over, scooping the water – called me over. As I approached, she held out a cup of the water that she had just gathered. I leaned over to look in and gasped as I saw what she was trying to show me. A giant leech. Disgusting. She poured the water out and then reached her hand into the spring, bringing out yet another leech. “How could they drink this?” I thought to myself as I tried to overcome my gag reflex.
Then I looked around me. Just a little ways upstream, children were washing their clothes in the dirty water. They were kneading the cloth of their worn and tattered dresses and trousers against the rocks of the stream, trying to avoid the places were the moss and fungus were thickest. As I took in the scene, I saw others cupping water into their hands and splashing it on their faces, their legs, their arms – trying to bathe themselves with the only water they had available to them.
It was a scene I had observed before; it is one that is so appallingly common it takes your breath away…and not in a good way.
I stood there, taking it all in, and then decided “I’m going to do this. I need to know what it is like – I need to really know what it is like.” So without thinking about it, I yelled over to my friend Eric (Glimmer’s director of development) that I wanted to do the water walk back to the village after the women had filled their jerry cans. He looked at me with surprise for about half a second before breaking into a smile and saying that would be great…he’d take the pictures!
And so we waited. That’s part of the experience. Not only do these women walk these long distances, but they also wait for long periods of time because the spring eye where the water is relatively clean (although still crawling with leeches) is very small and it takes a long time for each person to fill their jerry cans.
I had decided to help one of them women that I had been following on the trek down. She had a baby strapped to her back and I honestly had NO idea how she intended to get the water back to her hut. She definitely needed the help the most. So we sat with her until her jerry can was finally full. Then came the fun part….
With the jerry can full, we lifted it just across the stream and up this rocky incline before tying it to my back. Traditionally, the women tie the jerry cans onto their backs with scarves. It has always been a wonder to me that these scarves are able to hold 50 pounds of water in place. It was time for me to find out just how difficult that was.
I leaned over double as the water was lifted onto my back. Wow. It was heavy, but more than that it was incredibly painful and uncomfortable. A big, heavy, plastic jerry can is not the easiest way to carry something on your back. This is where I made a crucial mistake. I let men tie this jerry can on to my back. What was I thinking? The women are the ones who have to carry it, they’re the ones who know what they are doing. Alas. As I stood up, trying to balance this heavy weight on my back, I stumbled forward. It was very, very difficult to manage this jerry can as it was tied to my back with one scarf around the jerry can, and one scarf around my waist as support. Trying to get leverage, I situated it so the bottom corner rested on my waist. The bruises I discovered later were a testament to just how hard this was. The jerry can dug into my back, 50 pounds of water digging into me along the edge of the hard plastic.
Then I got to the steepest part of the gorge. This is where the climb was literally up a small cliff. I was daunted. People were reaching out to help me, but this was just knocking me off balance, making me aggravated. To be honest, I think the aggravation was coming from the very real fear that if this jerry can slipped, it could easily unbalance me and I’d tumble down the rock face. However, there were times when I needed a hand to get up the particularly steep parts. Without it, I would not have made it. I do not have any idea how the women make it up this rock without assistance.
As I got to the top, the jerry can slipped, and I had to bend double to keep it in place. The men rushed over to retie it, but I had learned my lesson. I wanted a woman to tie this thing onto my back. That would be the only way it would stay secure – sorry guys, but you aren’t the ones that carry these things every day. What a wise move. The woman who had the baby on her back, the one for whom I was carrying the water, came over. She helped me get the jerry can onto the ground before untying the scarf around my waist. She took it off and tied a big knot into it. The knot would provide a shelf, of sorts, on which the jerry can could rest. Genius. She then retied it to my back, higher up than the men had tied it. What a brilliant move. As she and another woman lifted the water back onto my back, I could tell the difference right away. She used the other scarf to secure the jerry can tightly to my back, tying it just below my shoulders across my chest.
The water was still incredibly heavy, but now it was much easier to manage. I could focus on my footing, on bearing the weight, and on not slipping rather than on the constant worry of the jerry can sliding off of my back completely.
Then we set off. With the rock face having been “conquered” (read: barely managed), we had about a 30 minute walk across rocky field, uneven paths, and a gently upward sloping terrain. It was an extreme lesson in humility – and one of the most difficult things I’ve done. I could feel the sweat dripping down my face and my neck. Hiking across the rocky ground, I could feel the water sloshing back and forth, sometimes coming over the top and spilling onto my back. As you might imagine, that weight only seemed to get heavier as we continued the walk.
There were about 6 of us in all, walking steadily in a single file line back to the compound of huts. I was leaning over, my hands behind my back, holding the water in place. At times, it would slip and I could feel the woman, baby still on her back, reach over and move my hands into places where I could better grip the jerry can.
At one point, I turned around to thank her. But I didn’t really have the words. But she just smiled knowingly and nodded me forward. I turned around and kept trudging along. My back was beginning to ache, the scarf around my waist was digging in and my wrists were sore from the awkward position they were in as they tried to hold the water in place behind my back.
The huts came into view, and we crossed another rocky field. Walking through the mud, out of breath from the effort, I couldn’t think of anything except just how incredible it was that this woman was going to do this – going to make this same walk that I was making for her – except she was going to do it with a baby on her back. It is what she did yesterday. And the day before. It is what she would do tomorrow. But for right now, I had her load, and in that moment I felt much more than just the burden of the water she must carry every day. The burden of her life is so much more than that, so much more than I can even begin to imagine. And I realized that we MUST work here. We have to find a way to help these people. Because to think that this woman will continue to do this walk every day for the rest of her life without any help…that’s a hopeless thought. And, after all, our mission is to bring hope to these people. To help them lift themselves out of poverty.
When we got back in the car, I could smell the stench of the dirty water that had sloshed onto my tshirt during the walk. I could feel the ache in my back. The bruises just above my waist were beginning to form. And I understood, perhaps more than I ever have, just how vital our work is. Because no woman should ever have to endure that kind of burden just to bring water – dirty water – to her family.