In Zambia, clean water unlocks opportunity, better health, faith, and fullness of life.by Kari Costanza | Photos by Jon Warren
The dog must have been thirsty. Who knows why? Maybe he’d been chasing down an interesting critter. Maybe he’d been playing with the other village dogs. Even winter afternoons are warm in southern Zambia, and dogs get thirsty. Whatever the reason, the dog went to the water hole. No one saw what happened next.
Three weeks later, when dog fur began to float to the surface, villagers took a long stick and poked around. The dog had gotten snarled up in the tree roots, drowned, and decayed. When pulled out, he was white, as if he’d been skinned.
It took days for Bulanda’s villagers to muster the will to draw from the hole, the only water nearby. “The sight of that water takes my thirst away,” says Bazaar Buumba, 57, whose wife and daughter fetch water from the dirty pit. “I have it brought in a cup and pretend it is from somewhere else.”
No amount of pretending changes the predicament of millions of people in the developing world. In Zambia alone, about 4.1 million people have no choice but to live with contaminated water.
Fortunately, Bulanda village falls within the footprint of World Vision in Zambia, which is committed to bringing clean water to a half million people. In 2014 alone, World Vision provided clean water to everyone in 416 Zambian villages and will reach more than 1,000 villages within the next few years. That means that all year round, each person in a family will have access to 5 gallons of water per day within a 30-minute walk of their home. And because Zambia is a predominantly Christian country, staff are also able to help community members understand the connection between this work and Jesus Christ, the Source of living water.
The plan is to make water available nearby, ensure it is safe and clean, and encourage a new mindset about hygiene so that communities will take ownership of their borehole wells. For Bulanda village, that time cannot come too soon.
Aching Necks and Hearts
In Simwami, another village in southern Zambia, Nivesh Buumba is afraid to collect water, a task the slender 11-year-old undertakes at least three times a day. “There are people who will kill you if they find you alone,” she says. “I’m thinking about this the whole time.” Her widowed mother, Meloda Simuzingili, 46, says Nivesh’s worries are warranted. She has heard of women being attacked at isolated rivers and streams.
Because there is no borehole well here, mothers and children have to get drinking water from small streams shared with pigs, goats, and cattle. They can’t gather enough for bathing or washing clothes.
It is remarkable to see the slight girl in cheap sandals—her only pair of shoes—treading nimbly up and down the hills of Simwami, the water from the bucket on her head sending rivulets trickling down her cheeks like tears. But Nivesh has no choice. Across Africa, carrying water is a girl’s job.
The bucket Nivesh carries is heavy. “It feels like my neck is sinking into my body,” she says. The four-hour task means that even if she leaves early in the morning, she’s late for school and doesn’t go. Her solution: “Sometimes I just fetch water all day so I can go to school the next day.”
Her mother, Meloda, has been raising five children on her own since her husband died from a stroke in 2006. She voices what many widows only think: “If I die today, how will my children survive?” She says, “Every day when I bow down to pray, I ask God to help me raise my children. If I can’t do it alone, please bring someone alongside to help me.”
The family attends Pilgrim Wesleyan Church, but they only go if they’ve been able to bathe, which is seldom. “I can’t go to church smelling dirty,” says Meloda. “I just think about how dirty I am. Sometimes I don’t allow my children to go to church, because they are so dirty.”
“I love going to church,” says Nivesh. “I miss singing. I sing in the choir.” She quietly sings her favorite song: “Give them strength for their souls. Though there is so much struggle being a Christian, there is hope on that cross.”
“What I miss most is worshipping with others,” says Meloda. “I miss the Bible.”
Meloda’s and Nivesh’s desires are simple. Meloda wants to ensure her children go to school and spend more time in church. Nivesh wants to feel safe while she gathers water. She wants to go to school so she can become a nurse someday. “If I was a nurse,” she says, “my dad would still be here.”
Software and Hardware
In the developing world, more than half of the deaths of children younger than 5 are related to illnesses caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation and hygiene. No one knows that better than Emmanuel Opong, a Ghanaian who runs World Vision’s water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) programs in southern Africa. Years ago, his sister, Anna, died of a waterborne disease when she was only 6 months old.
Like Nivesh, Emmanuel once dreamed of becoming a nurse, and as he pursued that career, he learned about the connection between Anna’s death and lack of clean water. His family tragedy motivated him to devote his life to bringing clean water to rural communities. What happened to Anna is still prevalent today—one child younger than 5 dies of diarrheal disease every minute.
With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in health and adult education and a doctorate in psychology, Emmanuel was tapped in 1997 to run World Vision’s West Africa rural water project, drilling 1,000 wells in Ghana, Mali, and Niger. The psychology degree helped him understand what’s behind a successful, lasting water project: The community has to own it. Local leaders and families have to change their mindset about water and sanitation, prepare for a clean water source, and dedicate funds and volunteers for maintenance. Today in Ghana, eight out of 10 World Vision-drilled wells are still functioning, even those that are more than two decades old.
The community-based work of preparing people to change their mindset and behavior is the “software” of World Vision’s water work. The “hardware” is the technical part—digging wells and building water systems. Both are essential.
When Emmanuel came to Zambia in 2010 to begin the country’s massive water project, he started with World Vision’s Christian Commitments team, laying the groundwork for the “software” so crucial to this work. Emmanuel’s vision was supported by an American donor, Terry Knutson. Terry and Emmanuel were of the same mind: In Zambia, water would provide an ideal way for World Vision staff to share their faith. The two men knew that receiving clean water would not only bring good health, but would also open up a conversation about the character of Christ. “It is Jesus who enables us to strike water,” says Emmanuel. “That water is stored there by God.”
Clean Water, Happy Children
One such happy child is Eniah’s daughter, Everlyn, 13. The sponsored girl lives in Hamaundu. World Vision installed new latrines at Everlyn’s school, built a health center, and drilled a borehole well in 2012.
Everlyn began to study the theology of water, using Jesus: The Source of Living Water, a devotional World Vision developed with Zambia’s evangelical churches. Her teacher, Pastor Bless Chilala, 47, has watched her mature. “She’s really impressive,” he says.
Everlyn is at the top of her class and bound for university. She credits her success to clean water and “the goodness I’ve seen in sponsorship.” Of her sponsor she says, “It makes me happy to think of someone who doesn’t know me but who thinks about me in a place I’ve never been.”
Before, Everlyn had to transport water five times a day. “My legs would ache,” she says. “We never used to bathe at home. Without World Vision, I cannot imagine the suffering. All the developments we have seen would not be here.”
Because of the new well, Everlyn’s mother Eniah got back four hours each day that she used to spend transporting water. “Now it takes minutes to get to the borehole,” she says. “I can quickly draw water. I come home, wash clothes, and then it is off to the garden to pick some vegetables.” In her garden she grows fresh produce that adds nutrition to her family’s diet, improving their health—already much better since diarrhea is no longer an issue. Eniah also makes fritters to sell for income.
Everlyn has opportunities that her sister, who left school after getting pregnant, did not. She can study and play with her friends because water is so close. And she now sees something that rarely happened before.
“In the past, girls fetched water. Now boys are accepting to do so,” says Winnie Mutaka, the secretary of the group that manages a nearby well. “In the future, they may be equal. They may both fetch water. It makes me happy as a mother and a woman that the girls are no longer seen as a tool to get water.”
Clean water has changed Everlyn’s life. She must study hard to keep up her first rank in class—there are more children to compete against now. When World Vision brings clean water to communities, school attendance goes up, especially for girls, and that brings up grades.
Everlyn’s father, Benny, says, “Now we can go to church proudly. I couldn’t go to church dirty.”
In fact, as a result of the water, there are so many people attending church that people have to sit on the floor. Hamaundu pastors have seen a direct correlation between the advent of clean water and church attendance.
So every Tuesday, Benny and two dozen men make bricks to construct a larger church.
Giggling and smiling, surrounded by friends, Everlyn watches her father work on the new church in the warm winter sun. It’s a favorite pastime, as is singing, playing volleyball, and caring for her three dogs, especially Benjy.
“I like Benjy best,” she says. “He follows me wherever I go. He follows me when I get water. He follows me when I go to school. He even follows me when I go to church. I love him.”
But the sensible teen sends her favorite dog home when he tries to go to church with her. Because of clean water—living water stored there by God—there’s not enough room even for people.
—Mutinta Chiseko, Collins Kaumba, and Davison Phiri of World Vision in Zambia contributed to this story.
Update: New Blessings in Bulanda
On Oct. 22, 2014, Bulanda village christened a new World Vision borehole well, replacing the dirty water source where the dog had died. First, dozens of families gathered at Bazaar Buumba’s home. “We have been getting water from dirty holes in the earth since 1963,” said Bazaar, addressing his fellow villagers. “Today, we have clean water.” With that, the families walked together to the well. There were speeches of gratitude for the water underground and prayers of thanks lifted skyward. As older children pumped water for the first time, the younger ones scampered into the well’s cement footing, hands stretching out to catch the first splashes of cool, clean, lifesaving water.
Nivesh and her family are still waiting for a well. The rocky terrain makes it difficult for the heavy drilling rigs to make their way to Simwami village. They’ve already had to turn back once. But World Vision will keep trying.
The Five Keys
Sanitation and hygiene are critical parts of a new water system. When families learn to use proven sanitation practices, water-related illness decreases significantly. Here’s what World Vision requires of each family in a community before providing a new well:
1 / Toilet
Replaces people relieving themselves in the bush and isolates human waste.
2 / Garbage pit
Replaces the practice of scattering garbage around a community.
3 / Hand-washing station
Replaces handwashing at distant water sources where germs can be passed around. Placed near toilets, the station ensures people wash their hands more often.
4 / Bathing shower
Replaces washing in community water sources, and prevents passing germs to other bathers.
5 / Raised dish rack
Replaces the practice of drying dishes on the ground. The rack keeps the dishes out of animals’ reach, and the sun sanitizes them.
One Piece of the Puzzle
As transformative as clean water is, it does not solve all of a community’s challenges. Poverty is complex. Imagine it like a puzzle, with just one piece—clean water—in place, but others, such as food, health, and education, missing. A puzzle can’t be solved without all the pieces.
World Vision aims to solve the “puzzle of poverty” through a broad range of interventions that help families bring together all the pieces: clean water, nutritious food, good health, schooling for children, a secure income, safety, and the knowledge of God’s love.
The result is lasting change, thriving communities, and the chance for children to reach their full potential—life in all its fullness, which Jesus came to give all people.
World Vision’s water, sanitation, and hygiene programs bear witness to Jesus Christ—the Source of living water. In Zambia, a Christian nation, Bible study and open faith discussion are common. In countries where public expression of faith is more restricted, works and faith are demonstrated sensitively as staff witness through building relationships, demonstrating good character, and expressing Christ-like unconditional love. In all World Vision does, the deepest desire is that all who are served will come to know the love of Christ.