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Olivia's story, part 5: A tale of two wells

By Marilee Pierce Dunker
Jul 16, 2014
Over 800 million people around the world do not have access to clean water. Marilee Pierce Dunker contrasts the reality of life for two extraordinary women who draw life-giving water from two very different wells.
Courtesy Marilee Pierce Dunker
The animals they passed on the way to Sinazongwe looked like the “skinny cows” in Joseph’s dream. Marilee wondered if the children look that way, too.
Courtesy Marilee Pierce Dunker
Marilee with Robert Siancumo in front of his family's stilted hut.
Courtesy Marilee Pierce Dunker
The Siancumo family had gone as much as for three days without eating.
Courtesy Marilee Pierce Dunker
Children waiting to have their buckets filled. Over 60 people depended on this water source.
Courtesy Marilee Pierce Dunker
Mary scooping water from her “well."
Courtesy Marilee Pierce Dunker
By the time Mary stopped, every bucket was full — the river was beneath their feet, but there was no well dug to access the water easily.
©2013 Collins Kaumba/World Vision
Olivia, Marilee, and Patience (World Vision Zambia sponsorship staff) walk to the well World Vision dug for Olivia's community.
©2013 Collins Kaumba/World Vision
The earth around the fenced-off well was scorched by fire to keep animals away.
©2013 Collins Kaumba/World Vision
World Vision videographer Eddy Rodriguez films the gushing water as it fills Olivia’s bucket. What would Mary think of such a miracle?
©2013 Collins Kaumba/World Vision
Olivia and Marilee wash their hands in the cool water.
©2013 Collins Kaumba/World Vision
Talent pumps water from his great-grandfather’s well. He will never have to carry water like his mother did.

When I first came to visit Olivia in 2003, World Vision’s community development work in Sinazongwe had just begun. Southern Zambia was experiencing extreme drought that year and on the four-hour drive from Lusaka I watched the landscape grow more brown and brittle with every passing mile. The cows grazing by the roadside began to look like the “skinny cows” in Joseph’s dream in the Bible, and I wondered if the children living in the huts we passed had started to look that way, too. 

When I shared my thoughts with my World Vision traveling companions, they confirmed my fears. Many people in Zambia were struggling to survive. Parents would go days without eating in order to feed their children. But they could not go without water — because in this hot, dusty land, water is life.

I knew that our sponsorship had already helped dig a well in Olivia’s community. The water allowed her grandfather, Ensende, to grow his crops; and Bob and I had bought the family some goats and chickens. But before I went to Olivia’s village to see the difference our sponsorship was making in her life, I asked to meet a family living outside of the ring of hope that sponsorship brings to a community.  

Mary's "well"

We drove about 45 minutes to a dusty clearing with a scattering of grass-roofed huts on stilts. Robert and Mary Siancumo and their four children had agreed to meet with us and tell us about their life. 

As they led us to a shady spot out of the beating sun, I spotted a small garden. A few green shoots had managed to break through the hardened soil but they looked as wilted as I felt. It was hard to believe that they would feed many hungry mouths.

After we talked for a while, Mary invited me to walk with her to the river to get water. We walked about 30 minutes to a dried-up, rocky gulch. There was no water to be seen! But Mary just kept walking towards a group of women and children with an assortment of buckets and containers. They were gathered around a large hole with about two inches of water pooled at the bottom.

This was Mary’s “well.”

As Mary bent over to scoop up the water and pour it carefully into a waiting bucket, I worried about what would happen when the water ran out. Over 60 people depended on this one, pitiful water source.

But miraculously the water didn’t run out. By the time Mary stopped scooping every bucket had been filled! 

Then it hit me. The river was there, beneath my feet. But without a real well, this hole was the only way Mary could reach it.

Full to overflowing

The next day I went to meet Olivia, her grandfather, and the 15 other children he was raising. About 10 minutes before we reached the family’s compound we drove over a dried up creek. For generations, this muddy creek was where Olivia’s family had gotten their water. 

I will never forget walking with Olivia for the first time to see the hand-pumped well World Vision sponsorship had built. It was a much shorter walk than the one I had taken the day before, and when I saw the gush of crystal-clear water filling Olivia’s bucket to overflowing, I wondered what Mary would think if she could see this miracle.

The importance of water in the lives of people like Mary and Robert and Olivia can never be overstated. Nor can the miraculous difference it makes when water is plentiful.

Aside from meeting her husband and son, one of the things Olivia wanted me to see first on my most recent visit was the well World Vision had dug in her new family’s community. It took no more than three or four minutes to walk from the compound to the fenced-off well. As we got closer, I noticed that the ground was blackened from a ring of fire that had been carefully set around the fence to keep the grass low and the animals away. The cement platform surrounding the pump was swept clean and when I pushed the handle down to prime the pump, the action was smooth and easy. It took just a few pumps to get the water flowing.

It was obvious that World Vision had instructed the people about how to maintain the pump to ensure that it would provide water for decades to come. (The next day we would visit Ensende and see the original well Olivia’s family used when she was young. As Talent, Olivia’s son, would demonstrate, it is still in excellent working condition after more than a decade.)

Olivia and I washed our hands under the cool, cleansing water of this new well, and I asked her if she remembered going to the river to get water when she was Talent’s age. She nodded yes.

“It was a long walk for me, and my legs would get tired. The bucket was big and heavy. I would go with my sister, and she would help me put it on my head, but I would spill a lot. It wasn’t easy,” she reminisced, obviously not missing those days.

“So how does it make you feel to know Talent will never have to carry water like you did?” I asked.

Olivia looked up and gifted me with a big smile.

“It makes me very happy.”

“Me, too,” I said, grateful that through sponsorship I had been part of this life-changing miracle.


P.S. A few months after I returned from my first trip to Sinazongwe in 2003, a group of junior high students heard the story of Mary Sinacumo and the river. They raised enough money to dig Mary a well. Another miracle begins.


Marilee serves World Vision, the organization her father, Bob Pierce, founded in 1950. Like him, she travels the world, witnessing and fulfilling God’s mandate to care for the poor. Request Marilee to speak.

Read the rest of Olivia's story