May 8, 2011

A Hard, but Joyful Journey

by Gil Garcetti

Two weeks ago I returned to the West African country of Niger—one of the three poorest countries in the world. I was there to take more photographs, gather more stories, and to accompany the father and 25-year-old brother of a remarkable 14-year-old girl, Kevin Kilroy. She had seen and read my book, WATER IS KEY that focuses on the issue of women, water, and wells. She read and saw the photos of the rural villagers who did not have safe water: the terrible health issues, the unnecessary deaths, and the absence of much hope. But she also saw what happens to a village when a bore hole well is drilled and brings the village clean, safe water: the general health of the villagers dramatically improves, women often become successful small entrepreneurs through micro credit loans that we give them, and girls go to school, sometimes for the first time in the history of the village.

Kevin was so moved that in a matter of a few months she was able to mobilize her school, parishioners at her church, and her family to raise enough money for four wells in four villages. This from a fourteen-year-old girl!  Her father, Ken, and her brother, Ross, wanted to see for themselves what they had read about, seen in my book, and heard from me. The report I wrote below was for my family and friends. I have been urged to share it with you. It chronicles a roughly 20-hour period during our trip in Niger. 

April 17, 2011

What a day! In about a 20-hour period we experienced a dust storm, 115+-degree heat, and 6 hours on washboard like dirt roads, followed by off road driving on rutted and gully filled sand and loose dirt, driving at night with monster size trucks greatly overloaded with “stuff” and Nigeriens riding on the very top, returning from Libya.  I walked into my “hotel” room to discover there had been no maid service nor was there any water in the shower. Air conditioning? Yes, there was a unit and when you turned it on it did make a lot of noise, but no air. Three minutes later all power was lost for a few minutes. (Then 3 more times!) The restaurant was out of everything but skinny chicken, no beer or soft drinks. We wait nearly two hours to get served. I couldn’t sleep it was so hot. I finally got some relief and a little sleep after I soaked a towel with the water from an outside water faucet and then draped it over my body. Indeed a memorable day and night! But I wouldn’t give up that day for anything.

We left our compound before 6AM. After visiting one village, see below, we were eager to go to the village where a well funded by the effort of Kevin Kilroy,  was going to be dedicated. The villagers were waiting for us when we arrived and you could sense an atmosphere of great anticipation. Before the well’s hand pump could be used for the first time, the welcomes, greetings, and speeches needed to be completed. The village chief thanked all and emphasized how with the bore hole well the health of his village would dramatically improve, how women would have the opportunity to earn money, and how girls would now be going to school.

When Ross was telling the villagers about his sister, (in blistering heat!) he remembered he had a graduation picture of her in his wallet. He gave it to the chief and told him, “This is my sister Kevin. She is now trying to get 1,000 more girls in America to do what she has done here.” It was a very emotional, joyous, proud, and memorable experience for all of us but especially for both Ken and Ross. Ross remarked to me,” This has been the greatest day of my life!” (Ross, 25, is a former California state chess champion and rugby star at Berkeley).

Being present in a village at the moment a new well breaks through and clean, clear water gushes out is a unique opportunity and we were there to experience it.  The villagers erupted with cheers and children ran near the gushing spray wanting to get drenched. The air was filled with their sounds of joy and excitement.  The women too were vocally demonstrative and beamed with an understanding of what this well would mean to them individually, to their families, and the village as a whole. The men were there in number too and they eagerly shook our hands and thanked us.

I gave a short speech to villagers explaining how this well was possible because one man in the United States had seen my book about West Africa and wanted to help bring safe water to people like you and your fellow villagers in Niger. This is one of five wells that was made possible by Andrew Cherng, founder and Chairman of the Board of Panda Restaurant Group.

I engaged the women and girls separately, asking for a representative to come forward. A woman who I had already photographed, Zara, was pushed forward.  In response to my questions, she told me she was about 40 (They really don’t know since rural villagers never celebrate their birthday.) and that she never attended school because she had to walk about 12 km everyday to fetch water. She would leave the village about 6 AM and return around 1-2 PM. No longer having to walk hours to get water, she would now have time to make money for her family, maybe starting a small business by planting a garden and selling vegetables in the local market. And, of course, she was ecstatic that her daughters would now be going to school.  This is what continues to drive and inspire me: giving girls the opportunity to go to school. It is life changing, not just for the girl and her family, but also for the entire village, giving them hope for their future. And it all begins with one well.

Though the trip back to our “hotel” was grueling, dusty, and very tiring, each of us was elated with what we had seen and experienced. Neither Kevin Kilroy nor Andrew Cherng was present, but they were with us nevertheless, and they will be with these villagers for generations to come.


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