By Barbara Goldberg
Have you ever experienced pure joy and heartbreak in the same day? That would describe our first trip to Niger in January, 2009. Six of us spent a week visiting remote villages in the bush, reached by very rough dirt roads, two hours away from our base in the city of Maradi, an 11 hour grueling drive from the capital, Niamey. One village we visited did not have safe water. Of the rest that did, all but one were villages where we had drilled wells within the previous six months.
Our first visit was to Garin Maikaka, a village with no safe water. Their water came from two traditional wells, one worse than the other. It was an eye-opener for us and the place where we felt the greatest pain and sadness, especially for the women.
We knew that in many parts of Africa, women walk miles every day, (often more than once a day) to find and carry water on their heads. What we didn’t fully understand was the physical pain and hardship that women experience when pulling up water from a traditional well.
There are things one needs to see firsthand to get the full impact, and this was one of them. To obtain their first water of the day, women wake up at 4 or 5 in the morning. As one women said, “I’m always in trouble when I hear the cock crowing. I have to rush to get water.”
Why? Because after a while the water stops flowing, and she will have to wait several hours until it fills up again. Sometimes they sleep on their way to or near the well, filled with tension about whether they will get enough water. When we saw the water they pulled up, our stomachs turned. One of our two translators said that it was water she’d expect to see in a gutter, water not even fit for animals.
The children in Garin Maikaka were dirty, and looked unhealthy. Pus oozed from their eyes, noses dripped, flies swarmed on their faces. 40% of the people in Niger have some stage of trachoma, which often leads to blindness. Trachoma comes from poor sanitation and not having clean water to wash the hands and faces of children and adults. Flies landing on an infected eye can contaminate a healthy eye. Trachoma can spread quickly.
We had heard about guinea worm before we went to Niger. A village chief, a victim of it for thirty years, confirmed its horror. A worm, sometimes a foot or more in length, actually lives and grows in the body, causing excruciating pain during the rainy season, making it difficult for people to work. Extracting it is difficult and often ineffective.
One of the most memorable women we met was Halima who lost eleven of her twelve children, from contaminated water. We talked with a mother holding her child who had diarrhea, having nothing to wipe her with other than a stick.
Women are so overburdened that they do not have time to properly care for their children, prepare food, wash their clothes, or play with them. They work non-stop and are continually stressed, exhausted, and age before their time.
The tragedy is that they know their lives could be better if they had safe, clean water. They prayed for it, and when it came, as it did in Garin Maikaka at the end of the week, they were exuberant. We were fortunate to witness another well coming in at the village of Miyaki. We witnessed a geyser of water spout high into the sky, the children running under it with pure joy.
We couldn’t help but join in and celebrate this life-changing moment. We will never forget it! We were there with the women as they lined up their jugs, waiting to taste the gift of the first clean water.
In the villages where we drilled wells, we were welcomed like rock stars. Chants of “Nagode, Nagode” – “Thank you.” “Thank you” filled our ears. As a “thank you” gift, we received chickens and even a goat!
To find out what happens over time when a village has safe water, we visited Dan Faro Korae, a village that got its first well in June, 2006, long before we had started our project. What impressed us most was what the women had created for themselves. Through the Micro Financing Enterprise Development Program started for them by World Vision, they became a village of entrepreneurial women.
We talked with the program leader, Zenabou, who had 107 women working with her making peanut oil, (the way Zenabou, in her own words, “got rich”), millet cakes, raising goats, chickens, or selling eggs. When there were problems, the women came together, talked, and found solutions-women helping women! We understood what Zenabou meant when she said that because of their financial success, the women no longer had to ask their men for money. The power had shifted; they felt pride in what they had accomplished and enjoyed their newfound freedom.
What we found interesting was that the women aspired to be like “women in the city,” women who didn’t have to work so hard, who had a nice wardrobe of clothes, who could shop in stores and choose from a variety of fruits and vegetables in the local market. As in many parts of the world, women acquired new clothes as a measure of their success. Their colorful outfits and jewelry were striking against the stark landscape of a typical Niger village.
What impressed us about our partner, World Vision, is the respect, patience, and kindness that they show to villagers. We witnessed a community meeting, attended by the village chief, elders, and the women, who were encouraged to express their needs regarding ways to improve their quality of life. Giving the villagers a say in what will happen empowers them to take responsibility for their future.
We left Niger, newly inspired, dedicated to drilling more wells to bring safe water to more villages. We hope that this has inspired YOU to open your heart with a generous donation.