by Amanda Silver-Westrick

Last summer, I lived in Senegal, West Africa, for two months. I lived with a Senegalese family, took sustainable international development classes with local university students, and conducted personal field research on water issues in the rural town of Guede-Chantier (“Geh-day Shon-tee-ay”).

Guede-Chantier is a small village in the northern-most region of Senegal. It lies on the Doue River, very close to the Mauritanian border. The town has about 7,000 inhabitants total and is 100% Muslim. Working with a group of five other students researching water-related topics, I interviewed over 250 men, women and children.

In Guede, fetching water is always the responsibility of women, and locals explained that the Koran instructs women to obey their husbands and therefore bring them whatever they need, including water. The walk to fetch water from the river can take up to four hours a day.

Young girls drop out of school at a much earlier age than boys because they are expected to stay home to help their mothers fetch water and do chores. Also, the women get water-borne illnesses, including schistosomiasis and cholera, much more often than the men, because women spend more time in the river; they wash clothes, fill buckets with water, and bathing children. These findings made me realize, more than ever before, that female empowerment and clean water accessibility in developing nations are irreversibly intertwined.

My African voyage was intense and full of ups and downs. I think it’s just the nature of the trip. It was hot and dusty and foreign, and both emotionally and physically exhausting. But some moments were absolutely precious and will stay with me always, held carefully close to my heart to forever remind me about the important things in life.

One of these took place during an interview with a group of influential men in the community. They explained that the open wells were drying up faster than in previous years, and that many families were getting sick from the river water. By this point, many of us researchers were growing disheartened, overwhelmed by the many obstacles to clean water in sub-Saharan Africa.

At the end of the discussion, we gathered ourselves and thanked them for taking the time to speak with us. One of the older men, with warm, perceptive eyes and a grandfatherly smile, told us: “We welcome you into our village and our homes. We know that you’ve come from very far away to help us. You come with love in your hearts, and we’re so very excited to have you here.” I almost cried, but instead smiled and shook his hand with both of mine.