The Gift Of Clean Drinking Water

Susan Page
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Wednesday - December 15, 2010
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Sonya Mendez (left) with a family and their water jugs

If you drove a stake directly through the center of the globe from Hawaii, it would poke out in the Kalahari Desert in the African country of Northern Botswana. In other words, about as far away as you can get.

It’s bewildering to some that, despite this distance, many Hawaii folks choose to journey to Africa on mission trips to help the poor, sick and vulnerable.

Over the past six years, I’ve written many columns about my Africa trips through the organization Heart for Africa, and after last July’s trip and subsequent column, a reader, “Mr. B,” wrote me a very polite e-mail. The subject line was Save a sick man in Aiea.

“Dear Susan, I applaud your efforts to help those in need in Africa. However, as you probably know, there are thousands of people in need right here in Hawaii. Have you been along the Pearl Harbor bike path lately? ...

They live in the bushes, Ms. Page, and they live in absolutely sordid conditions.” He cited the story of a homeless man who contracted a flesh-eating bacteria, eventually going to the ER, was hospitalized, underwent many skin grafts, and after months was released and is now disabled.

If you do mission work in Africa, you hear this argument a lot. In fact, before I went for the first time in 2005, like Mr. B, I too wondered why people go all the way across the world to serve the poor when we have “dire” needs here.

There’s no short answer (nor should there be judgment about where people choose to donate time or money), but within Mr. B’s above account lies a clue as to why many people feel drawn to Africa and other impoverished nations, a clue that underscores the disparity within the human condition.

Villagers gather for fresh water from a well drilled by Hawaii Rotarians

In 2006, Hawaii entertainer Sonya Mendez went to Ethiopia, one of Africa’s poorest nations, with a Hawaii group through Rotary International, which has made eradicating polio worldwide its core service project. When they went out into the countryside away from the main city of Addis Ababa to visit polio projects, they discovered a situation that sadly exists all across the African continent: a village with no clean water.

Tekle Beyene, the village elder, told them how each day the children had to wake up “at 3 a.m. to fetch water from a dirty river to bring back to the village” carrying 5- to 10-gallon plastic jugs - a three-hour round trip - then walk another 45 minutes to school. Remember, a gallon of water weighs 8.35 pounds.

“We were so moved by his story, we promised we would drill a water well for his village,” recalls Sonya. “Beyene was so happy for our offer to help that he removed his cap while his eyes filled with tears, and he dropped to the ground to kiss my feet. We were so stunned by his display of gratitude, it left me speechless.”

Right then they pledged $6,000 to begin funding a well, and once back in Hawaii formed the Well of Hope Foundation (WOHF), a 501(c) (3) organization. The foundation’s mission is to help the human condition wherever it exists.

Providing clean well water is a massive, expensive and complicated project in Gilo Ager, the village WOHF supports. But, after four years, nationwide grass-roots support and a matching-funds partnership with World Vision, a whole region will have access to clean water.

Reservoirs and more wells are planned. No more devastation from droughts that continually plague the region wiping out crops as well as farm animals. Deadly water-borne diseases will diminish, and remember the children? No more trekking miles to fetch water before school.

Before the well, villagers fetched water from this muddy pond

Not to minimize need in Hawaii, but every needy person in our islands has many, many resources such as shelter, food, clean water and, yes, free first-class medical care if they choose to access them. Institute for Human Services (IHS), Salvation Army, U.S. Vets, VA Health Care for the Homeless for help, Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center, Weinberg Village Waimanalo Safe Haven, River of Life Mission, Angel Network Charities, Hale Kipa and Women in Need (of which I am a board member), to name only a few. Good places to donate and volunteer.

In contrast, African need is so basic, so life-threatening. No safety nets exist, no programs or shelters, no Medicaid or welfare or clean, well-equipped hospitals for long-term care. As Mendez and many others of us in Hawaii know, such a seemingly small thing like clean water can save hundreds of children’s lives and forever alter the health and wealth of an entire region.

Every heart gets tugged toward different needs. In this Christmas season of giving, give where your own heart calls, whether it’s to a local charity or one exactly on the other side of the globe. Just give.


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