Jafred and I were on our way along with our trusted driver, Fred, in search of a story about a water sanitation project that had been established by The Netherlands government in a village in Nyandiwa Town. We were on an extremely tight schedule (by now a norm for us). We had come out to the fishing villages on the shores of Lake Victoria for the weekend in an attempt to connect with locals and learn about how foreign aid was affecting their lives. Two days to cover this terrain while at the same time trying to establish relationships and collect stories was no easy task. Yet, we were doing our best. It was by now midday and we were exhausted from having left our hotel at 4am (with barely three hours of sleep) in order to get to the villages when the fishermen arrived from their overnight catch, part of another story that our team was trying to capture. We were already feeling exhausted from the heat, long bumpy rides in our van and then on piki-pikis, muddy walks carrying our equipment, and the interviews we had conducted up to this point with women who were trading sex in return for fish and with men who were advocating for fishermen to get circumcised. Nevertheless, we had about 2 hours before we needed to start the long journey back to Bondo Town where the rest of our teammates were staying. We wanted to use this time wisely. So we left Evans and Jeremy behind and went in search of the water pump.
We found the village Chief who was kind enough to speak with us about the project. He spoke only Luo, but luckily Fred was able to translate. We learned that the water pump provides 20 households with clean water. Many more families in the village could use the pump if they wished, but the villagers who live near the lake prefer not to walk several kilometers just to collect water. We asked the Chief to direct us to the pump so we could see it for ourselves. It was not far away, but we had to cross a shallow stream to get there. To get across, the guys were using small rocks as stepping stones, and a stick to help maintain their balance. After following them in this manner for a few steps, I figured I would save myself the trouble of doing this balancing act and walk through the stream instead. It was very shallow and I didn’t mind getting a bit wet. Plus, I had waterproof sneakers on. They continued to walk precariously on the rocks. As I neared the other end of the stream, I realized that I couldn’t get myself out of the water. With every step I took, I sank deeper into the mud. The boys had a good laugh seeing me in this state, but eventually decided to help me out. I was covered in mud almost from the knee down. My shoes were heavy with mud both on the inside and out. I needed to rinse myself off. Luckily, the water pump we were looking for was just around the corner. Thanks to the donors who helped build this borehole, I was able to rinse myself off and look a little bit more respectable. I found myself secretly thanking The Netherlands Government.
The pump was working fine and I drank some of the water, more out of curiosity than thirst. It tasted slightly metallic, but it looked clean. Was the metallic taste a cause for concern? Yes, of course. It’s unpleasant taste could very well detract villagers from drinking it. If I have learned one thing from my public health courses, it was how hard it is to change peoples’ behavior/lifestyles. We humans will find any excuse to avoid having to make lifestyle changes even if we know it might benefit our health. I plead guilty to this myself. In this particular case, it would be getting used to drinking metallic tasting water in exchange for the unsanitary, possibly better tasting water from Lake Victoria. Granted, I didn’t taste the water from Lake Victoria even though I was tempted to….How else would I know what the water some of the villagers were drinking was like? But common sense prevailed, and I didn’t drink water from Lake Victoria as communities living around the lake use this water for a variety of purposes ranging from washing clothes, bathing, washing kitchen utensils etc. (While I was living in Utah, I visited the Salt Lake, and I did in fact taste the water to see if it was salty. It was.).
The pump worked well and, from our viewpoint, the villagers who were using it were benefitting. As we were walking away we came across a small boy who was collecting water into two buckets from the shallow stream. When we asked why he was collecting water from there instead of the water pump, he replied that his grandmother had told him to. I was perplexed. There was clean water literally less than 100 feet away and here this kid’s grandmother wanted him to collect water from this shallow muddy stream through which cattle were passing, urinating and defecating along the way.
Jeremy and Evans were calling wondering when we would be getting back and why we were taking so long. I knew we needed to leave because we faced a 7 hour drive back to Bondo and needed to reach there before nightfall, but I also knew that Fred could very easily pull off the drive back in about 4 hours if need be. However, Jen, one of the Pamoja faculty who had accompanied us to the shores of Lake Victoria would certainly be living in her worst nightmare if that were the case. Fred, while a safe driver, didn’t quite observe the speed rules, that is, if any such rule even exists in Kenya. Throughout our journey in Fred’s van, I would frequently find Jen with both her hands clasped together as if she was praying for dear life. On occasion, when Fred felt like he wasn’t going fast enough and pressed harder on the gas, she would suddenly clench on to the arm rests of her seat as if we were going on an extreme rollercoaster ride and needed to hold on to something for fear of falling off. Surely, I couldn’t make Fred drive even faster on our return journey and give Jen a heart attack? But, I couldn’t get over it. No matter how long it would take us, I needed to find out from the grandmother why she asked this child to get water from the stream. I just had to find out. Jafred and Fred were good sports and agreed with my insistence on tracking the grandmother. We ignored Jeremy’s and Evans’ phone calls, and off we now went on a grandma hunt.
We eventually found the small house where three cows were tied to a tree. A hen was pecking on the ground nearby. A small plastic sheet lay on the ground with some maize laid out to dry. The grandmother was sitting on the doorstep with a book in her hand. She greeted us with a gentle smile. Fred, once again acted as our translator and told her our reason for visiting. She then explained that the pump had been broken for some time and she had no idea that it had been fixed and so asked her grandson to fetch water from the stream.
Obviously, there was a clear lack of communication here. Perhaps other households were doing the same without that important piece of information. Earlier, the Chief had informed us that each household is required to pay 10 Kenyan Shillings ($US 0.12) a month to him for repair and maintenance of the pump. Often times the villagers don’t pay or are unable to pay this monthly maintenance fee, and so he is left with the financial burden of having to pay for the difference so that his community has a working pump and access to clean water which he explained had already helped reduce many waterborne diseases among his community. However, unfortunately, despite the Chief’s efforts to restore the water pump, it was very evident to us that some households were probably still under the impression that the pump was broken.
With my question answered, my curiosity now turned towards this feeble old lady holding a book. Her face was etched with many wrinkles clearly showing her old age. She wore a long dress which was torn around the left side of her chest exposing us to a black layer of cloth underneath. She had covered her head with a piece of cloth that shone brightly with the colors of the Kenyan flag; red, green, white and black. It matched very well with her green and white dress. This 86 year old grandma apparently was living alone. Her two daughters had passed away due to HIV and so had both their husbands. They had each left behind a son. The older grandson was the one we met at the stream. Her grandsons lived with other relatives in the neighborhood, but visited their grandmother and helped her with chores. She basically depended on the support of her two young grandsons and the generosity of her neighbors to be able to survive.
Her losses, pain and daily struggle of simply trying to stay alive with no one to take care of her at that age struck me deeply and I immediately felt helpless. Some days she doesn’t have anything to eat, but she stays hopeful. She sits on the steps and reads the Bible (pointing to the book she is holding). She prays that things get better and that she will be able to carry on through God’s grace. The neighborhood kids love her and visit her home often to spend time with her. She too loves them dearly and is thankful for their company which I sensed brightened her days. And sure enough while we were talking to her, kids started showing up and we could see their love for this grandma.
Grandma, your sense of hope and your belief in prayer left a profound mark on me. Through prayer you found hope, strength and courage to meet your daily challenges. You found inner strength and peace despite your situation. Grandma, you gave me a sense of hope and faith that no religion can ever give me.
I don’t know if you are still alive or have eaten a meal today. I do know that I will never see you again, but I often think of you and picture you with your Bible in your hand, sitting on the front doorsteps of your house and greeting me with your gentle smile.