Water, water, yet barely a drop to drink

The Living Word mission team stayed busy Saturday scouting new places for building boreholes (a form of wells that are machine drilled and capped ensuring sanitary water). I was able to sit with their small delegation during a ritual meeting among them, a particular community’s elders, ministers, and political representative. It was a relationship dance, each contingent approaching the other strategically shepherded by intermediaries. What I mean is that who spoke, to whom, in what order, and after which greetings seemed to matter.

On our way through Navrongo, the nearest town center we picked up a local clergywoman whose role has been to introduce our delegation as we go. She and Mary Kay, our coordinator from the Mission Society and the HelpGhanaNow project’s liaison, established a relationship through the church and built on the relationship through Living Word’s previous school and borehole projects.

We arrived at our destination which was nothing distinct to me: a small compound of mud huts, a woman stoking a shallow hot fire with a large round kettle pot cooking on top, and a lean-to made of wood poles (limbs cleared of branches and bark) and palm fronds woven as the roof. We were invited to sit along the wooden bench seats in the shade. Our hosts used modular plastic chairs in the rows perpendicular to the wood benches – they forfeited the shade, presumably as a gesture of honor. Also perpendicular to the wood benches, Mary Kay and Michael, the head St. Louis pastor, sat in two chairs which our hosts had positioned directly opposite their own chairs. Together we comprised three sides of a square.

The local clergywoman opened with greetings of a trained negotiator or neutral facilitator, but she was sitting nearer our hosts than us. She then turned the program over to Mary Kay as if to say, tell us what you want to do for us. Mary Kay offered ritualistic greetings and then introduced our delegation person by person with several sentences of context about each of us. She spoke slowly and distinctly. No translator was needed. Though only one man among our hosts spoke, others visited informally later.

Exchanged information included: the name (including spelling and pronunciation) of the village we were now visiting, names and roles of people present, need the village spokesperson sees (various boreholes), where local people currently draw their water (in this case, they currently draw from hand dug wells we later saw, ones not covered, not clean, and not deep enough to last the dry season’s December or January thru March or April), and the distance women and children must go for the nearest borehole (women and children carry the water in this culture). We learned the nearest clean water was about a mile away – Mary Kay told them we wanted to walk the distance to experience what those who fetch water do. Our hosts were quite startled, but following their disbelief and general laughter, they set out to show us the way.

It was a hot, mid-day walk in equatorial sun. One man told Michael that some of the elders send their regrets that they could not walk with us…today’s weather was apparently too cold and they could not easily move in such (cold) temperatures. (One speculated it was mid to high 90’s when we returned).

The walk, the sights, and the conversation with villagers as we walked to their borehole were profound for all of us. The mud houses were quite spread out, often tucked into the fields and under trees, and had different widths of paths passing towards or by them. We stopped to see the hand dug well and continued on. Eventually, we reached the site, a hand pump with 8 – 12 people filling containers. Two young men had just finished filling two large barrels and were fitting cloth tops to them with rubber straps. The barrels were already in a cart and soon the young men pushed off – one pushing and one pulling their long way towards home.

Young children seemed to fill and carry buckets of one to three gallons on their heads. Women were filling and carrying much larger buckets reported to be 5 to 8 gallons (at 8 pounds per gallon, which means the women carry 40 – 60 pounds at a time on their heads!).

The videographer and his wife followed two young women on their journey and back needing more than 30-40 minutes for the round trip (and telling us they were afraid they would be lost had the young women not returned with them to the borehole for more water; the path taken weaved between and among multiple different unmarked trails).

Collectively we walked back to our starting point.

From there, the same hosts directed our liaisons to another site in need – we didn’t walk all the way to this one! It was near an elementary school without electricity or running water. Apparently, children are often most responsible for getting their family’s water. By locating a borehole near the school, a child’s water duty can be 15 – 40 minutes shorter freeing up time to help gather wood or work in the fields. By the time we arrived, 10-20 villagers were already gathered under the big tree. Presumably, word had spread through text messages and word of mouth that we were coming. 5 or more came on motorcycle, several on bicycle, and many on foot. Though no formal introductions were made, several streams of men, then streams of women, would pass to shake each white visitor’s hand in turn. The same happened again before we left. Overall, the meeting seemed to be as simple and as significant as sharing time together in a same place before dispersing again. 

There is a massive need for clean water in Northern Ghana, no doubt in many other parts of the world too. Filling the need requires collaboration, including relational rituals as much as money and equipment. Collaboration requires mutual appreciation – for each others’ beauty and pride, as well as for each others’ realities. So I invite you to explore this story and any pictures I can eventually post here with a relational heart – no pity, just very different circumstances. The world is made of many different realities, all existing simultaneously.

Note: I invite you to notice today how water effortlessly flows through your daily life.

4 responses to “Water, water, yet barely a drop to drink

  1. Personal reflections — On Julia’s first day of school, she made a point of filling up her reusable water bottle before leaving for school, because the water in the fountains at school “is cloudy and tastes weird.” We rarely drink water from the tap at home because of the particulates, and because we are used to drinking chilled water. For our drinking needs at home, we used to go to Costco and buy cases of carbonated water bottles because we like the bubbles and the taste. Because I hate recycling bottles after one use, we recently bought a Sodastream machine, so that we can carbonate our own water at home in durable plastic bottles that can be rinsed and reused for years.

    And a bit broader perspective — In our part of California the dry season runs from May till November, and the water that falls in the mountains and streams that goes into reservoirs varies from year to year. There are political battles about whether and how much water to divert from the Sacramento delta to the Central Valley and to Los Angeles. We saw signs along our drive to LA last week saying “Congress kills farmers” because two or three years ago the allocations to farms for irrigation were cut way back, and many tree farms burned down their almond trees rather than trying to irrigate them through the summer. They kept only a few trees that they knew they could afford to water and keep healthy. Most farms are very large and are not run by a single family, but they still employ many people. When less food makes it to market, food prices go up, and that affects everyone through California and beyond.

    • I’m impressed that Julia (and the “next” generation) is so much more astute about water and recycling than my generation ever was. Perhaps social change does indeed continue to happen slowly over time.

      And on the dry season — Texas had an unusually hot, dry summer last year similar to much of the U.S. midwest this year. Several neighbors lost large, old, seemingly well established trees. It seemed to me that houses on one side of the street lost more trees than houses on the other side. I wondered if there was a change in the water table coinciding with our street. In fact, one neighbor’s tree removal person pointed out a different pattern — at least every other house on the side of the street where trees survived had sprinklers systems; several houses in a row on the tree-perish side of the street did not. His theory was that one house not sprinkling might be okay for everyone’s trees (the roots can share beneath the surface). But when multiple houses in a row don’t water, multiple trees are lots. Seems that there’s a “tragedy of the commons” theory playing out!

  2. Mary Grace,
    Thanks for such a detailed, thought-provoking entry. Keep up the good work in all you are doing!
    Lisa F.

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