Do Women’s Empowerment Laws Work in Niger?

by Jessica Wiseman

Women living in Niger, West Africa, one of the poorest countries in the world,
are busy fighting to survive. The goal of women’s empowerment and equal rights
often seems unreachable when the odds are so heavily stacked against them. In
Niger, it is not uncommon for women to be beaten and raped by their husbands,
fathers, and brothers, but sadly, women see this as a normal part of their lives.
While the laws of the state reprimand violence against women, it is the practice
of such behavior that sets the law of the land. A woman typically cannot even tell
her own mother about such mistreatment.

Centers created to empower women through knowledge of their rights and
access to health care have not been much help. Women in Niger fear that if they
seek out these centers, they will face the stigma of society. They do not seek
help for fear that their safety will be further threatened.

Niger does not record statistics on rape or violence against women. When a
woman goes to a clinic to seek medical help they record her injuries but not the
cause. In many cases, women who go to the police are given no help. Further,
officers may, in fact, subscribe to the idea that the women have been beaten for
a reason, offering no support. Niger is not alone is such treatment of women.
Further problems exist in the marriage and divorce laws. The youngest age a
woman can legally be married is fifteen years of age. It is estimated that 62% of
girls between the ages of fifteen and nineteen had the legal status of married,
divorced, or widowed. According to Nigerian laws, both the woman and the man
must give their “free consent.” However, this is often not respected. In rural
regions of Niger, girls between the ages of ten and twelve are often married and
the mother-in-law becomes their new guardian. With polygamy being legal, one
third of marriages in Niger are polygamous.

Only a man can be the head of a household. When a woman’s husband divorces
her or if he dies, she cannot take over her husband’s position. Inheritance is
equal according to Nigerien law yet, according to Islamic Sharia law, a woman
can inherit only half of what a man receives. Ownership laws allow women to
buy, sell, and own property. However, tradition dictates that only the head of the
household can own property and so these laws serve no use.

Other factors prevent women from gaining true financial independence. In Niger,
only 15% of women are literate while 43% of men can read and write. Not being
able to read makes it difficult to understand their rights, sign contracts, or take
other steps toward empowerment. A staggering 81% of men have jobs with legal
pay while only 7% of women can say the same.

If a woman is educated and aware of her rights, then she is able to assert herself and
apply for a loan to start a small business or buy property. But once again, the
weight of custom makes such an endeavor highly unlikely.

While many steps have been taken to liberate the women of Niger, only 13%
have seats in the National Assembly. Greater empowerment of women will come
when equality is not only written, but practiced.


How Water Projects Bring Empowerment to Women

by Amanda Silver-Westrick

Development projects that bring clean and accessible drinking water to sub-Saharan African communities bring empowerment to women at both local and regional levels. Girls who might otherwise spend up to four hours a day walking to fetch water are free to spend that time in school. Women are suddenly granted more time to pursue income-generating activities, and more flexibility to apply for microcredit loans. These improvements are critical steps toward empowering women, promoting gender equality and increasing female self-sufficiency, which contribute to the overall social and economic stability of developing nations.

Seems easy, right? Unfortunately, international development is rarely that simple.

In order to more effectively empower African women, we must also ask ourselves: What happens next? How does a community change after the well or pipe or faucet is built and the developers leave town? The answers might surprise us.

In some African villages, women rarely leave the home. Most of their chores are domestic in nature (washing clothes, cooking meals, cleaning), and are therefore restricted to domestic boundaries. Although their daily hikes to fetch water are grueling and time-consuming, the women use the walks as an opportunity to interact with other women. They discuss problems within and between families, and they problem solve. Development projects that ignore this social and psychological outlet might be neglecting a vital aspect of village life for women. In some communities, the rate of inter-family conflict might escalate dramatically.

So how do we factor these social and psychological considerations into our own development efforts? Wells Bring Hope is unique in the world of safe water causes in that we continue to work with a community for 15-20 years after a well is drilled. Villagers are trained on how to maintain the well, where to get parts–in short, they take ownership and responsibility for the well. The government of Niger mandates that the committee who manages the well have an equal number of men and women and, while it does not always turn out to be 50-50, women have a voice for the first time in the history of their village.

We also give women access to microcredit loans in villages where we drill wells. Wells Bring Hope does not abandon communities after instigating change, leaving women to flounder in their newfound isolation. Our projects empower communities, and women within them, to take part in their own development.

Would You Want to Be a Mother in Niger?

by Pat Landowska

Niger is the second-worst place to be a mother ­– ahead of only Afghanistan – according to Save the Children’s annual State of the World’s Mothers report. The organization compares living conditions of mothers and children in 164 countries. Norway, Australia and New Zealand top the ranking this year as best countries for being a mother. Among the 10 bottom-ranked countries, eight are from Sub-Saharan Africa with Niger ranking the lowest in the region. Sub-Saharan Africa also accounts for 18 of the 20 lowest-ranking countries.

In Niger one in seven women dies in labor or from complications during pregnancy. Only a third of expectant mothers either deliver at hospital, health post or with the help of a trained midwife at home. As a result, a significant number of women who survive birth giving lives in isolation due to complications during labor like fistula and incontinence. Scarcely 5% of women use modern contraception. Less than 50% of pregnant women in Niger are receiving some prenatal health services.

A typical woman of Niger has fewer than 4 years of formal education and will live to be 53 years old. 1 child in 5 dies before his of her fifth birthday whereas 41% of the five-year-old survivors suffer from malnutrition. The contrast between Niger and the top-ranked country, Norway, is striking. Skilled health personnel attend virtually every birth in Norway. An average Norwegian woman has 18 years of formal education and will live to be 83 years old. 82% of women are using some modern method of contraception, and only one in 175 will lose a child before its fifth birthday.

One of the factors taken under consideration in preparing the report’s so-called Mother’s Index is population’s access to safe water. Only 48% Nigeriens have access to clean water. By drilling wells and securing water for more people, situation of mothers and children can change very quickly for better.

The report does not mention that only 15% women of Niger are literate (as opposed to 43% of men). This heart-breaking number is directly related to the fact that burden of fetching water falls on shoulders (literally!) of women and girls. Lack of literacy accounts – directly or indirectly – for poverty and malnutrition, low or no access to professional health services, and ultimately premature deaths of mothers and children. Drilling wells is a single most sufficient action that can help to raise the rank of Niger in future World’s Mothers reports.

“These statistics go far beyond mere numbers. The human despair and lost opportunities represented in these numbers demand mothers everywhere be given the basic tools they need to break the cycle of poverty and improve the quality of life for themselves, their children, and for generations to come.”

(State of the World’s Mothers report, 2011)

WASH and Hollywood

As the summer blockbusters debut, here are some movies on water and sanitation that you might want to catch and some from the recent past that you might remember.

Water has traditionally received more attention than sanitation, yet in films like Slumdog Millionaire and Basic Sanitation, American viewers started to get a sense of what life without a toilet is like. Do you remember the clip in Slumdog Millionaire when the lead character is locked in the makeshift community toilet and forced to jump into the mound of sludge below to get his favorite actor’s autograph? This memorably comedic scene depicts the not so comedic sanitation issues that many in developing countries face daily.

In the 2008 Brazilian film Basic Sanitation, the village takes on local corruption to gain access to sanitation. The small Brazilian community of Linha Cristal wants to create a sewer treatment facility, but there is no budget for a sewer. However, the local government has set aside money for educational films. A resourceful couple applies for a film grant and uses the money to create a film on the inadequate sanitation conditions of the village to educate their local government.

Safe drinking water continued to capture the attention of moviegoers in 2010, with the Spanish film Even the Rain. It has a dual plot that examines the exploitation of native Bolivians both during the arrival of Christopher Columbus and in today’s society. The movie followed a crew that traveled to Bolivia to film a movie on the exploitation of the local population during the time of Columbus and staggered upon the Cochabamba water wars, where local peasants were forced by the government to pay more in water bills and forbidden to collect rainwater.

The interest in safe drinking water has also sparked an international film festival dedicated solely to water. In its sixth year, the Indian film festival Voices from the Waters focuses on the global water crises, including water, sanitation and health.

Water continues to be of interest to film makers, with new movies coming out this year and in mid-2012. The Source, the closing film at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, takes a new twist on the Lysistrata myth of using sex to gain access to safe drinking water. Paani by Shekhar Kapur, the director of Elizabeth, looks at the lack of safe drinking water in India.

Women and Water: Stewards and Agents of Chnage

Excerpts from remarks by Maria Otero, Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.June 13, 2011

Around the world, women and girls in developing countries walk an average of 6 kilometers a day (3.75 miles) carrying 20 liters (or 42 pounds) of water—often in isolated, unsafe areas, putting them in harm’s way. In some areas, the journey takes more than 15 hours a week, making it difficult for girls to go to school. Less education means fewer economic opportunities for women, which in turn hurts the local economy. And thus the cycle continues.

Whether we are talking about climate change, food security, global health, we know this: clean water is a crucial ingredient for sustainable progress on our foreign policy priorities:

• Droughts and floods now affect more people than all other natural disasters combined.

• Competition over scarce water is increasingly a source of tension, even conflict within and between countries.

• Unsafe water, sanitation, and hygiene are already among the world’s top risk factors for death and disease.

• And climate change will only exacerbate all of these challenges.
No matter where you are in the world, it is the women who are on the front lines of these fragile environments. They are the first victims—but they are also the first responders. When provided with appropriate training and resources, women have enormous potential to devise and implement solutions to address these threats.

The key here—what we are all working towards—is creating the conditions in which women can move from their status as potential victims of water challenges and transform to becoming agents of change. So, let me briefly touch on two ways we are doing just that:

• First, by providing better water, sanitation and hygienic conditions in schools, as well as incorporating WASH into school curricula;

• And second, by empowering women to become productive members of their societies, especially in fields that relate to water.
First, in order to really affect systemic change, we must start young. No matter where you live—be it Boston or Bamako—schools are the foundation of strong communities. It is a tragic irony that those who go to schools to learn, congregate, and protect their health, are often put at risk from the school environment itself. More than half of all primary schools in developing countries do not have adequate water facilities and nearly two-thirds lack adequate sanitation.

And all along, women and girls suffer disproportionately. Female school staff and girls who have reached puberty are less likely to attend schools that lack sanitation and even more, gender specific sanitation facilities. They stop attending school. As we increasingly recognize the contribution of women to household income, health, education, and nutritional outcomes, nations simply cannot afford a lag in women’s education and literacy.

As such, in FY 2009, the United States invested about $774 million for all water sector- and sanitation-related activities in developing countries. One example is our “WASH in Schools” program. Through WASH in Schools, US embassies are working with local NGOs to implement water and sanitation activities with teachers and students.

So, we are focused on building better conditions for young women—because, as they move from primary school to adulthood – as entrepreneurs, community leaders, professionals, they often become the stewards of water in their rural and coastal communities. We are investing in the next generation of women leaders in science and technology so that they can become active drivers of water solutions. Whether she manages the local bore hole for her community or is developing the next water treatment plant for a multinational company, we know that leadership and business training for women are critical to achieving many of our long-term priorities related to health, agriculture, climate change, and water security.

“The Future of Water” Virtual Conference

by Barbara Goldberg

Covering global systems and megatrends, the “Future of Water” virtual conference examined how different fields, sectors and stakeholders can meet the challenge of providing a growing global population with clean and sustainable water. 60 leading thinkers each spoke for one minute, conveying their perspectives and thoughts about what is needed to solve the clean water problem.

The following are highlights and thoughts that I found memorable:

“Water comes and moves through nature. People need to place an importance on maintaining healthy land, and the pipes that go through the land, the “grey infrastructure.” Tony Long, Director WWF European Policy Office Brussels

“Half of the world’s hospitals are filled with people suffering from water born diseases. 40 million hours a year are spent by women carrying water. Girls are impacted because they too carry water and don’t go to school.” Lisa Nash, CEO Blue Planet Network

“Water projects haven’t lasted; many of them are not sustainable. Out of 10-20 that are put in place, only two last. These projects don’t take into account the local maintenance problems, they don’t provide money to insure that something gets fixed when it is broken. They don’t factor in long term use.” David Abraham, CEO, Clearwater Institute

“Global drinking water is a solvable issue. Clean water is like medicine, it keeps kids alive.” John Oldfield, Managing Director, WASH Advocacy Initiative

“Water is not just a physical resource, it has cultural, social, political dimensions and is also a religious symbol. At Coca Cola, we have learned to respect all these aspects of water which gives us emotional license to operate in many places in the world.” Jeff Seabright, Coca Cola

“Sometimes we are intimidated by the hydro-geologists. The biggest challenges are the ‘soft’ issues.” Dan Vermeer, Executive Director, EDGE

“One contributor to spreading cholera is plastic garbage bags in canals, in cholera infested waters. If you create a business model that includes the collection of plastic bags, you reduce the opportunity for cholera to spread.” Robert Goodwin, Executives without Borders

“Who owns the water rights? Who owns the aquifer beneath us? The battle continues and the water table shrinks.” Susan Marks, journalist

“1.3 million die every year from diarrhea. We need to put an end to open defecation.” John Borrazzo, Chief Maternal & Child Health Division, Bureau for Global Health, USAID

“Stop climate change. Put a price on water. Measure your water footprint. How much are you consuming?” Tony Long, WWF European Policy Office

“There are three dimensions of sustainability: social, economic and environmental. Nature has its limits and those limits must be respected. We all need to use water as carefully as we can and don’t alter the water table too much.” Brian Richter, Managing Director, Global Fresh Water Program, Nature

Dennis Nelson of Project: WET Worldwide Water Education talked about what they are doing to educate kids, teachers, parents about water, the most precious resource on our planet. “With kids, knowledge leads to action.”

“We’ve lost glaciers all over the world, mainly due to soot, methane emissions and brown clouds, depositing black carbon on glaciers.” Fred Anderson, Partner, McKenna, Long & Aldridge

“Nature has been producing clean water for centuries. We interfere and overload the natural system. Water doesn’t respect boundaries. It affects people huge distances away.” Tom Kennan, Director & Senior Environmental Scientist, NESA Environmental Consultants, Ireland

“The average pipe in the Western world is 80 years old. In the United States, 600 mains break every day. We need more advanced technology and that technology needs to be funded to eliminate these problems and the waste that results from it.” Guy Horowitz, V.P. Marketing, TaKaDu

“We tend to think of different types of water as individual “silos” but we need to think in a much broader way, and come up with a broader research management policy, defining water as one resource.” Steve Maxwell, author of “The Future of Water”

“There are a variety of approaches needed, like the purification of ocean water via reverse osmosis, which is most effective and highly used. New technologies can improve water supply more with the use of more energy efficient methods.” Don Paul, University of Texas

“Corporate utilities understand that it’s a serious problem. They know that water is going to be more expensive. Companies need to act now, to invest in water technologies.” Lara Abrams, Lara Abrams Communications

“Very few projects know how much water they’ve actually got. There are very poor people using new technology to understand and measure the resources they’ve got and they are pushing their governments to take action.” Julia Bucknall, Manager, Water Unit, World Bank

“Water is the biggest user of energy. We need to step back and look at the bigger picture. We need more decentralization in water management and look at generating energy from used water.” Hank Habicht II, SAIL Capital Partners

Michael Hickner, Asst. Professor of Materials Science & Engineering at Penn State University talked about the need for using reverse osmosis and nano filtration to process ocean water. If we do that, he said, we can purify enough water for global use.

“The biggest part of scarcity is due to poor management. We need to better assess our resources.” Vadim Sokolov, Deputy Director, Scientific Information Center, Uzbekistan

“Water scarcity is a major problem in Israel. We are monitoring ground water flow and pollution to prevent water scarcity.” Gedean Dagan, Tel Aviv University

“We need to make better use of bio charcoal, which is heated agricultural waste, normally thrown away. If you add it back into the soil, you restore the carbon, which results in a reduced need for water for crops.” Peter Grey, Partner, McKenna, Long & Aldridge

“There are so many things that we can do as individuals. Fix leaks, take shorter showers, buy energy efficient appliances and outdoors, use drip irrigation, compost mulch.” Janet Nazy, Executive Director, Partnership for Water Conservation

“The challenge is how to get water in an affordable manner. There needs to be a decrease in macro utilities and an increasing reliance on water purification technologies at the local level, where consumers operate and maintain their own safe water service, something they would purchase themselves.” Sanjay Bhatnagar, CEO, Global Water Health International

“I’ve been working with cholera since 1975, polling with NASA, by collecting data to predict when the next outbreak of the disease will occur and where. A seri cloth has been developed that filters out 99% of the bacteria.” Rita Colwell, Johns Hopkins University

“We must create a sustainable global work force of scientists who make water their career.” Elsa Speranza, President, Chair, Water for People Board

“Water is a sensitive issue. We need to take a trans-disciplinary approach to water management, with city planners, economists, the community, all co-designing the future for water management.” Mark Pascoe, CEO, International Water Center

“The coming generation will not take water for granted.” Dan McCarthy, President & CEO, Black & Veatch Water

“Flooding and drought increases and good water supplies are being depleted in arid and semi-arid regions of the world. They are not well poised to cope with it.” Jan Famiglietti, Professor, Earth System Science, University of California, Irvine

“One of our most serious problems can be solved together. It will take great political wll and a high level of funding. It will involve individuals, civic groups, schools—there will be a role for everyone.” David Douglas, President, Water Associates

“Do you have access? Can you clean up the water supply? Health and hygiene are the main issues and they require cultural change. We need to teach people to use latrines, wash their hands and techniques for healthy food handling.” Ajay Badhwar, Board Member, Pure Water for the World

“These are the solutions to invest in: use the best available science, develop a better integrated resource management system and better valuing of a fresh water system.” Tracy Farrell, Senior Director, Fresh Water Initiative Conservation International

“There is danger that women face walking to get water; they can be assaulted, raped. People resent others trespassing on their land. There is a tremendous upside to gaining access to clean water.” Peter Bell, Senior Research Fellow, Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations, Harvard University

We need to focus on the people on the ground over the hardware. Sometimes local innovation is better, people on the ground may know more. Susan Davis, Chief Partnership Officer, Water for People

“We all hear that there is a global water crisis. There is no global water crisis. It is local, regional, a crisis impacting people in certain areas of the world.” Charles Fishman, author of “The Big Thrust”

“Water is an indispensable resource. There are 7 billion people on earth. We need to treasure it and protect it.” William Reilly, Chairman of the Board, Global Water Challenge

And finally…

We need to step back and figure out how to collaborate—the chemical engineers, social scientists, politicians and public policymakers. We need to think ahead to 2050 to leave the water world a better place. Neil Hawkins, VP, Dow Chemical Company

“Insights into Women in Africa” – UCLA African Activists Association Conference

UCLA’s African Activist Association held a conference on May 21st, “Women Agency in Africa: Role, Motivation & Voice.” As a speaker, I was happy to have the opportunity to let African activists know about the dramatic impact of drilling a clean water well has on improving the lives of women. Not many people make that connection. We tend to assume that providing a well helps everyone in a community, and while it does, the positive impact on the lives of women and girls is so much more dramatic.

As the founder of Wells Bring Hope, I am, perhaps, an example of someone who took up a cause based upon a very specific need in an area of the world about which I knew relatively little. Spending the day listening to primarily female academics thoroughly immersed in the culture and life of women in Africa, was an incredible learning experience. Here are some nuggets of new learning:

Have you ever heard of “Nollywood?” No, not “Bollywood,” but the Nigerian version of it, an industry that employs one million people, primarily working in Nigeria. They make films that go direct to video and the market in Africa is huge. The storylines, however, have become more focused on women’s sexuality, films such as “Girl’s Cot,” which focuses on transactional sex on university campuses. In a fascinating way, Elinam Dellor, a graduate student in Public Health at UCLA, gave us a close-up look at four university women who engaged in transactional sex. She explored their motivations, specifically the different sources of power that these women derived when engaged with their clients, each other and their friends. One major source of power was the contacts they had developed, who they could call on when they needed help or a favor.

Another fascinating and not surprising piece of learning was the way in which male writers in Africa criticize and marginalize female writers. They are undervalued and repressed, negating everything about being a woman. They are dismissed as writers and it is very hard for them to work. These women are creating valuable stories about what it means to be a woman in African society today and it is difficult for them to find an audience for their work. It was noted that ancient African cultures didn’t marginalize creative women; current attitudes that prevail today are seen as one of the “leftovers” from the colonial era.

I was extremely impressed with the work of Anakazi, a Los Angeles-based non-profit founded by Yareka Mhango, dedicated to mobilizing business development for women in Africa. She stressed that the greatest obstacle for women entrepreneurs is financing. Since women don’t own property, they have no collateral and the banks are not female-friendly. Typically, women start small businesses but reach a certain level and they cannot grow. These women also lack business support services and skills that are necessary for them to grow. In Zambia, one of the countries where Anakazi is working, most women don’t even ask for outside help. They may ask their husbands, who know little more than they do. Anakazi, tries to connect these women with investors or other markets, sometimes inviting the women abroad for training. They have established a very effective Joint Rural Development program where women in a given district can call in to a local radio station and there are people on the line who offer help or advice.

I found the personal experiences of Amanda Silver-Westrick a UCLA Geography major, with a minor in African Studies, most fascinating. She worked in northern Senegal for two months studying gender roles surrounding water acquisition. Why do women have the responsibility to carry water? According to Amanda’s interviews of 250 people in two districts that didn’t have clean water, it is Koran-based: women must “oblige their husbands,” bringing them the things that they need. Also, carrying water on one’s head is a culturally female thing to do.

Curiosity motivated me to do some online research and I found that in primarily Hindu India, where women are also responsible for getting water, the men get water for the specific purpose of providing it for their animals. Women’s needs for clean water are more diverse, and include a strong need for the cleanest water possible for their children and so because of their greater need, the responsibility falls on them to fetch it. Sad to say, whatever the culture or religion, it seems that the burden likely falls upon women to get water.

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.

Earth Day 2011 – Santa Monica College

Wells Bring Hope joined other ecologically-minded non-profits on the Santa Monica College campus for Earth Day on April 22. Students taking part in a “Treasure Hunt” had to walk from one end of the quad to the other carrying a 40 lb. can filled with water. They couldn’t believe how heavy it was and to do it for 4-6 miles as women in West Africa do every day was unimaginable. It was an eye-opener for them and a very painful one, realizing how women and girls suffer from the burden of getting water. They were so happy to learn that when a well is drilled, all that is ended and girls can go to school.

Here’s what they had to say after carrying a can with 40 lbs. of water:
“It was very heavy. It didn’t feel good. For girls like me, it would be really hard to carry it. They would feel very tired. It’s sad that the girls can’t go to school. ” —Jade F. 8 years old
“I couldn’t make it all the way. I can’t even imagine having to do that every day, let alone one day for four to six miles.” —Isabella Z.
At first, it didn’t seem like anything. The road gets harder. Imagine doing it for four to six miles. —Jack. N.
“It was horrible. As soon as I got halfway, I got a headache. It was very tiring.” —Shandell
“I can’t believe that African women have to carry these so often. I could barely carry it for a couple of feet.” —Diana P.
“It is very heavy, even for a guy. I can’t even imagine doing it every day.” —Cristian H.
“It was very difficult to carry 40 lbs. of water around. I was exhausted just walking for one minute. I can’t imagine how African women walk for four to six miles carrying this water. That is something that I absolutely can’t do”. —Tran P.

Gil Garcetti’s Story

My journey began in January 2001. I was no longer Los Angeles County District Attorney. A month earlier, I had been the county’s chief law enforcement officer, now I was moving on but unsure of the direction. Life takes interesting detours when you least expect it.

My first trip to West Africa was with the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation who thought I might be able to be of use as a photographer. We traveled to Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Niger where we met with NGOs, government officials, and villagers in rural communities. The most startling fact I heard early on was this: close to 70% of rural farm communities throughout West Africa do not have access to safe water.

Visiting the villages quickly brought home the consequences of unsafe water: high infant mortality; severe and recurrent illness for villagers of all ages; blindness; unsanitary living conditions; low farm production; absence of opportunity for private enterprise efforts; and, for girls, virtually no opportunity to attend school. I documented all this but was also mesmerized by images of hope and beauty among their women and children – their eyes, smiles and body language.

After that first trip, I returned to West Africa four more times to photograph and subsequently published the book, “Water Is Key: A Better Future for Africa.” My idea was to use it to make people in the developed world aware of both the consequences of unsafe water and the life changes that come when a well is drilled deep into the ground.