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Water is NOT all around

Love is “urukundo” in Kinyarwanda.  Kamonyi district’s “Team of Love” consists of a beautiful young woman named Christine, two elderly, wrinkled ladies, one of the ladies’ son, and a local government official.  The inspiration for their name comes from the group’s love for their village community, despite its myriad problems.  They seek to alleviate malnutrition, domestic violence, miscarriages, lack of female personal development, school truancy among children, inequality in education levels between boys and girls, and a gender disparity in local government…  If these goals seem overly ambitious, the solution seems frighteningly simple.

You’ve heard about ‘water in Africa’ a thousand times, and maybe you’ve even donated to dig a well or two. But did you ever imagine in what deep and varied ways that dollar improved individual lives? Here is a snapshot of the ripple effect of water scarcity in one community: the mountaintop village of Kamonyi, Rwanda.

Team of Love told us that women must walk an hour or more down the mountainside to fetch water for cooking, drinking, and bathing.  Walking two to three strenuous hours for water leaves less time to complete other household chores, and if a husband comes home to a dirty house or dinner just getting started, he often beats his wife.  (A team from Nyamirambo, a community closer to Kigali, told different stories of husbands leaving their wives for other, more hygienic women because their own wives couldn’t usually sacrifice the family’s water for their personal baths.)

In addition to serving as a trigger for domestic abuse, the arduous trek down the mountain and back up is a health risk for many women.  Carrying jerry cans stacked on their heads for hours causes severe migraines for some. Elderly, sick, and even pregnant women all make the journey, and a few expectant mothers have suffered miscarriages.

The scarcity of water also causes malnutrition. Crops die without sufficient irrigation, leaving less food, less variety in food, and less income to buy diverse food.  The kitchen gardens where women grow fresh vegetables wither in the dry season.  Others foods are cut out of families’ diets because their preparation requires water.  Children lack those vitamins and eat many French fries (called ‘chips’).  Potatoes require little water to grow and can easily be fried instead of boiled.  Cooking with oil instead conserves water but is less healthy. (Another team is educating their community about nutrition and encouraging members to grow vitamin-rich foods like spinach. Rwandan children used to munching crispy French fries are in for a rough change!)

The Team of Love explained why their children often miss school. Kids must bring water to school on “cleaning days” (since there is no running water at the school to clean the building). If a child arrives empty-handed because her family could not spare water that week, she is sent home. She is also sent home if she fails the bi-weekly checks of bodily cleanliness and a thoroughly washed uniform. (The hygiene checks help to prevent the spread of disease.)

Some children frequently miss the morning part of school because their mothers ask them to come help fetch water.  It’s usually the girls who are absent from morning lessons, “because,” the team told us, “girls are more obedient than boys.” (They said it, not us!) The girls fall behind in their lessons, are eventually held back a grade, and ultimately become the oldest or biggest in the class.  Embarrassed, they finally stop attending altogether.  The water problem leads to a profound gender disparity in education level.  After leaving school, girls grow up to inherit the same claims on, and expectations for, their time and efforts.  Women struggle up a mountainside with jerry cans of water strapped to their back and balanced on their heads while a community meeting or business association gathering takes place back in town, attended only by men.  Now, in addition to being less educated, a wife is more ignorant than her husband about life beyond the hill and kitchen. She depends on him for information, and her ignorance triggers verbal berating that accompanies the physical abuse, leaving her battered and belittled— his superiority reaffirmed yet again.  Women will reclaim their time, their dignity, and their leadership potential when the Team of Love builds a water access point in the center of town.

A person who suffers abuse is more likely to solve problems with violence, herself.  The team ended the meeting by telling us that one woman was imprisoned because her child misbehaved and she responded with corporal punishment (all too prevalent in Rwanda).  This time, the beating was too severe, and sadly, the child died.  Along with the rest of the community, the team would mourn his death at the funeral the following week.  With all the tragedy in Kamonyi, their dedication to a new water access point is bringing much needed hope. But, as they pointed out, a water supply will solve problems, not change minds.  Violence in families is still widely accepted, and the moment a pipe breaks the beatings will resume. So, they’ve developed a plan to host community workshops on the ethics and legality of domestic violence.  Their goals are numerous and ambitious because they recognize the complexity of their community’s problem, as only they can. These women may not be experts in water chemistry, but they are experts in their own experiences, and making use of that knowledge to develop a comprehensive solution may be the solution in itself.

Children from Kamonyi. Blue and khaki are the school uniforms. (The requirement of a school uniform keeps kids in school for 6 months longer, on average.)
This is a water access point like the one Team of Love hopes to build. This spiket was constructed by Have a Good Life, a Global Grassroots team in Nyamirambo.
One of the leaders of Team of Love with her three grandaughters. She is working so that they will stay in school and not bear her burden of carrying water for miles up the mountain.

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