"This project made me feel as if I'd done something tangible with my time"
Sometimes you go looking for an opportunity to help people, and sometimes it falls in your lap. The latter happened to me as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
The first year of my service I lived in a tiny rural village in northern Ethiopia, as beautiful as any place I’ve seen. Despite this beauty, and the friendly people there, the area is undeveloped, and 90% of the people working in subsistence agriculture. Most people are without electricity, nobody has running water, and people live hard lives because of the lack of education, health care and infrastructure.
I occasionally made a 40-minute walk to a neighboring village where I visited some classes and taught the teachers basic English. One day the school director, Mr. Mesfin, asked if I could help bring a water supply to the school. I was often being asked for things I couldn’t provide, but I said I’d see if we could find some grant money.
At about the same time Mr. Mesfin asked me for help, I received an email from Joyce Mueller from Water to Thrive, a Texas-based NGO that builds water wells in Ethiopia. Joyce and her husband, Dick, are friends of family friends. They had found my contact information and wanted to meet me on their trip to Ethiopia. Together we hatched an idea to do the water project for the neighboring village and their school: A 400-meter pipeline extension would be built to bring water from the existing source to the school with six faucets.
The project cost was $11,000. When I went home for a break at Christmas we had a party where I spoke about Peace Corps and my village life to friends and neighbors. Dick spoke about the mission of Water to Thrive. We introduced the project and about half that amount was raised among family and friends.
Some months passed and I became worried the project would stall without the rest of the funding. However, one bright day I was awakened by a phone call. It was Tes, an Eritrean/Ethiopian man I met some months back on a plane to Addis Abeba. Tes had immigrated 11 years ago to Toronto and works for Phoenix Geophysics Ltd. He had wanted to make a contribution to the project, which I mentioned on the plane, and he put a notice about the project on his company’s bulletin board. As it turns out, the company president decided to contribute the remaining cost for the project. This generosity brought tears to my eyes.
Several weeks later construction commenced.
The work moved along quickly. A local organization handled the design and construction of the project using the funds donated to Water to Thrive, and most of the labor was provided by local villagers.
As a result of this project, today more than 400 students and teachers have water on site – so they can now wash their hands after using the latrine, drink water throughout the day, and fill up their jerry cans to bring water home, which is typically the responsibility of girls in the village.
In the summer of 2013, we had the inauguration ceremony under cloudy skies. When fellow PCVs and a Water to Thrive board member and I got out of the car that brought us, village women and girls were singing to the rhythm of their drumming and making their happy ululation sound.
We walked to the site of the water station and my heart swelled – and I thought of all the people who gave money who wouldn’t be able to see how happy the people were. Ribbons were cut, songs were sung, dances were danced, students tested the faucets (photo above), and coffee was brewed. We were thanked profusely, and I gave a short speech in Tigrinia, the local language. We were serenaded all the way back to our vehicle and waved goodbye. A truly wonderful feeling enveloped me.
This project made me feel as if I’d done something tangible with my time in Ethiopia. Living here and knowing the challenges facing rural areas, it's hard not to think of their ongoing problems. Will the equipment still be working years from now? How long would it have taken to get the water station if we hadn’t found the funding for it? Will the villagers ever be able to afford an electric infrastructure that would dramatically reduce the cost of pumping the water? These thoughts concern me, but I also realize I can’t figure that all out; these are things the community will figure out.
I hope to come return one day and see the water station and make further improvements. Maybe people will still remember me. I’ll certainly remember forever the day we inaugurated the project, the generosity of both friends and strangers who helped fund the work, and the pure joy and appreciation the villagers showed that day.