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Women walking to well for water

A forgotten story: Jacob’s Well

I suppose sometimes when I write it’s a bit of a rant, but today there’s a bit of an ulterior motive – a catch – which is serious; maybe a matter of life and death.

For the past week we have been visiting schools, like 750 girls in a secondary school over two days, a transition year group and finally a group of special needs students in the primary school in St Michaels House in Ballymun, which was an amazingly humbling experience where we met each one of them and their carers and teachers, showed them our pictures, got them involved, let them mess with the model pump, got unexplainable attention and feedback.

One great thing about these seriously challenged young people (from 5 to 18) is their ability to find out your name and then continue to address you, using it.

For those of you who didn’t manage to get Sunday Mass, the Gospel reading was on the Woman at the Well, about this outcast Samarian woman being asked by Jesus for a drink of water. It’s a wonderfully deep story and was well commented of by our priest in Mullinavat on Sunday. He declared that he had only a hint of an idea of what it means not to have clean water, that water IS life, that water-drenched people, in Ireland here can’t imagine thirst, or what its like to be given a drink of cool, clean water. That parable has great meaning for us in our Malawi mission.

Where we work in Northern Malawi, women and girls walk at least a million miles, each day, in search of water, any kind of water, just so long as it’s wet. Most times it comes from streams and swamps or holes in the ground where animals and humans compete for whatever is available, which often is pest ridden and smelly.

These women roll off their mat on the floor in the only clothes they have before dawn, bring their daughters, mothers, aunts, nieces and maybe a granny to set off for maybe a four or five mile trip, over all types of terrain to the nearest location. They skim off the top and fill their 25 litre containers, help each other to hoist them on their heads and head back home. They are mostly hungry, often sick because diarrhoea and water related diseases are ever present in their systems, without shoes, pregnant, or even carrying babies who may have to be fed on the way, as they go.

Of course they will sing, chat, laugh and pray on these daily, futile treks. They will thank God for all they have, as well, because they have never seen anything else. They will arrive home in bright sunshine, collect sticks, make a fire and cook, feed everyone, till, sow, harvest or prepare soil, go to bed in the dark until the process begins again the next morning, 24-7-365, without breaks, holidays or appreciation.

Now the simple plastic pump we make in Mzuzu changes all this. The water is clean and pure and close at hand, women get a life they never knew, girls get a chance to go to school like never before, women have time to grow stuff or start little businesses. They still have the same amount of backbreaking work, but without the sickness and maybe even a little earned income.

There are two significant facts in this:

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  • We can help communities access, pure clean drinking for less than 1 Euro each and
  • Mostly avoid this million mile daily trip. I explain it like this: even in the district of Mzimba, one of the areas in which we work, there are 850,000 people and a minimum of 250,000 carry water every day. If their round trip is 4 miles, then those women and girls walk a million miles every day.


So we have an idea, to invite people to do this million mile challenge. Walk a mile, anytime, anywhere, on one day or over a number of days and give us one Euro so that we can give another person clean water.
Walk in solidarity with those amazing women, they will bless you forever.

Clean water is often the difference between life and death, often death in Malawi.  I’m sure it’s puzzling to most readers as to why we are fiddling around with one euro donations, why don’t we put an advert on telly and collect thousands.  BUT we decided, at the beginning, to pay all expenses ourselves, keep costs to a bare minimum, spend nothing on advertising and keep everything in scale.

If one Euro can give a person clean water for life, then one euro is the scale and a reasonable donation to ask for, especially in these harsh economic times.

A point I make to students by holding up their bottled water (everyone has a bottle of water nowadays!); bring the bottle home, fill it from the tap just for one day and buy water for life for one of the poorest people in the World.

If you want to change someone’s life this year, 2011, then this may be your chance.
Clean water changes lives totally and completely and it costs 1 Euro.

Now back to the kids in St Michael’s House, primary school: I had shown the idea of the million mile challenge to a teacher who comes to Malawi to volunteer this Summer and after explaining the situation to children parents and staff, the word came back to say that they were all up for it, They could walk a mile, no bother, and give a pump to those poor people.

As Mary went on with her talk one little girl with red hair and a big smile asked: When we buy the pump, Mary, for these poor people, will we have to carry it a very long way to Malawi? Mary, being good at the delegation, assured her that I would do all that for them!

This one sentence was enough to send me back to Malawi on April 4th newly enthused and inspired, to suffer bureaucratic indifference, political corruption, chiefs without hope, fuel shortages and cratered roads, mixed in with two months without sky sports, showers or sausages.

Robert, my helper, who claimed allegiance to Gortahork, in Donegal, lives in Gardiner St and without a hint of a Donegal accent told me that he knew all about having no water after the frost. He knew he couldn’t have a drink, wash, flush the loo or have a shower and it wasn’t nice.

The woman at Jacob’s well knew all about clean water as well, collecting it was her daily chore, she asked Jesus where his bucket was, suggesting maybe that he was a typical man.

After our talk in one school it was heartening to get a letter from a father of a student we spoke to saying:
“My great picture and no sound, son, sat me down, tonight, after your talk, went on for an hour about water, pumps and Malawi and convinced me that we should all get together, as a family and buy a pump for a village. We enclose a cheque for €130 which may be my best investment we ever made. Now I have women in Malawi praying for me, a son who is my best mate and when we get the pictures lots to talk about; a common interest”.

Not a bad day’s work!

Oh about the girls, they have more ideas than the contents of a small novel, and over 60 are signed up for the mini marathon.
This is part of the million mile challenge, walking for water. Did I say you can walk, run, skip, hop or even skate board. You could do it with your team, school, class, club, granny or even walking the dog, at home or on holiday.

Maybe you could promote the idea for the beginning of the new school year.

I did say there was a catch, but it’s just 1 Euro.

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