Saturday, October 20, 2007

Water is Life

I'm back!! Sorry for the EXTREMELY long delay in posting. In the last two months I've spent a total of 7 minutes on the internet! This post was actually written about a month ago, so although it says the rains are only a month away, they are in fact mere weeks, or even days away. It has already rained a few times, and it won't be long now before it's raining everyday, which is the signal that the rainy season has actually started. Again, sorry for the long delay, I hope there is still people out there reading this! I'll try hard to make the next interval between posts a little shorter! Enjoy!!

My head turns slowly, because all I can manage are slow, deliberate movements. It is hot…very hot. The air feels thick, and everything looks hazy, as though I’m looking through water. I squeeze my eyes shut for moment, trying to block out the sun, but it’s no use. The back of my eyelids are a brilliant red. I tip back my Nalgene, even though it is empty, in the vain hopes of catching a few drops that I missed the last few times I tried this. Nothing comes out. I wipe the back of my hand, dirty and grimy with a mixture of sweat and dust from the road, across my forehead. I’ve long since stopped caring about looking dirty; it’s useless to care anyway. I am standing in a field, watching the digging of a new well. The hole is 110cm in diameter, and we’re about 7m down. I briefly envy the man down in the hole digging, because I know it is cooler down there, out of the sun, surrounded by cool damp earth. Then I remember my experience digging a well in Malawi, recalling that it’s not nearly as easy as it looks (and it doesn’t even look remotely easy!). There are about 6 of us watching: myself, Eddy (my coworker), and 4 community members. Except for Eddy and I the whole group rotates to take a turn digging when one gets tired. Feeling guilty for not helping, I take a turn at mixing the cement for casting rings used to line the well, and take a shift hauling the dirt up out of the hole with a bucket and rope. I try to do my share, but it’s obvious that I’m just not used to working in the heat. After only a few minutes I’m breathing heavy. At the very least I’ve amused people with my efforts. We all laugh as one of the men tells me to rest, and takes over.

Time hardly seems to be moving. Each minute feels like an hour. Despite the heat, the sweat, the dirt, and the scorching sun, I savour this moment. It is such a contrast to my normal pace of life these last few months. Any chance to stand still, to let the wheels in my head slow down to a normal speed, and to just think, is worth a parched mouth. The past few months have gone by in a blur. I’m hardly in the same spot for more than a moment it seems, and that’s not far from the truth. As I write this I’ve been in Milenge for two weeks, and this is the first time since June that I’ve been in one spot for more than a week at a time. Thousands of kilometres spent on the bus, workshops and meetings all over Zambia, and one guest house after another has not left much time for contemplation on the lessons I’ve learned, and the experiences I’ve had. So I soak up this brief respite from the normal hectic pace, and let my mind wander.

As is often the case, my thoughts focus on water. I imagine how good a cold glass of water would taste right now, and I envision myself diving into a clear, sparkling pool. Not all of my thoughts are rooted in fantasy though; I realize that I do need to drink some more water soon to keep from being dehydrated (I seem to have this thought almost everyday now), and I start to figure out how to refill my Nalgene. This is a problem that I’d never really faced before coming to Zambia. If you think back I’m sure there aren’t too many times in your life either where clean water hasn’t been readily available. In Canada we are rarely far from a tap which will give us water safe for. That is not the case here. Getting a glass of water sometimes means a walk of a kilometre or more, and there is certainly no guarantee of it being clean. On the contrary, less than 10% of people living in Milenge have access to clean water. For the rest, every sip could result in diarrhoea, dysentery, intestinal worms, and a wide variety of other water born diseases. Even on a hot day like today, it’s hard to enjoy gulping down water to quench your thirst with these thoughts in your mind.

Yet you can’t avoid water, no matter how hard you try. Almost every aspect of life revolves around water, from the obvious examples of drinking, cooking, and cleaning, to a wide range of other activities essential to peoples’ livelihoods: gardening, animal rearing, construction, and numerous other income generating activities. There is a common saying that is often used in our meetings: “Water is life!”. This is becoming more and more evident to me with every passing day. The work that WaterAid does to provide safe water to communities goes far beyond health, although that is obviously of paramount importance. With better access to water, people are given opportunities for additional food and income generating activities. Sometimes this is the small boost that is needed to allow the people we work with to grasp that bottom rung of the development ladder, and begin the climb up.

With some effort I bring myself back to the present. It’s time to move on to the next site. We have 3 more wells to inspect today. Climbing back onto the motorbike brings relief from the heat, as moving fast is the only way to generate a breeze! The rest of the day we spend moving from site to site, talking to the water technicians, offering some technical advice on the work, and taking some notes for our reports back to the country office. Along the way I refill my Nalgene a few times. Some of the water points I use are considered “safe”, meaning they are covered, and equipped with a pump. Some are not, so I must make the same decision that the people of Milenge make every day – the choice between dehydration or the risk of water-borne illness.

Life in Milenge, as I mentioned, is flying by at blinding speed. A few things have changed since I last posted, so I’ll give you a quick situation update. First, the family I was living with, the Lwando’s, have moved to Mansa. You may remember that Mr. Lwando was a driver for the District Commissioner’s office. As a driver in Milenge, he wasn’t getting much opportunity for travel. In addition to the boredom associated with sitting idle, day after day, he was also missing out on the travel allowances that are vital for bolstering his salary. A driver’s position opened up at a government office in Mansa, so he applied for a transfer and was successful. While I’m thrilled for the Lwando’s, I was obviously very sad to see them go. I miss having them around, laughing with them, learning from them, and getting to know them. They have indeed become my family here in Milenge.

However I have managed to find another place to live. I moved in with two of my friends, Andy and Evans (sorry, no picture of Evans yet!). Both are drivers for the Ministry of Education.

The house is just down the road from my previous house, and sits on a piece of land with 5 other houses (our house is the one off to the left of the picture, hidden behind the mango trees).

The other houses are all occupied by the members of an extended family - the Mwapes. The head of the family is Mary; a lovely woman who I would estimate is in her 60s. She will often come over just to say hi, and give me a handful of groundnuts, or a piece of cassava. I’m not sure where all of her children are, but the rest of the family members living with us are her grandchildren and their families. In all, there are probably about 30 people living within 50m of my house. Mary lives in the house directly next to mine, along with three of her grandchildren, Agatha (22), Memory (19), and Eric (15), and Agatha’s little 6 month old baby, Petronella. As Andy, Evans, and I are at work all day, Memory and Agatha help us out with cooking and cleaning, and as such I spend a lot of time with them in the evenings. Agatha has graduated from high school and is very fluent at English. Memory has finished up to grade 8, and is in a government sponsored program that is helping her finish high school. She only speaks a little bit of English, so I’m getting lots of practice with my Bemba. Eric is in grade 9, and also comes and hangs out with me most evenings. He helps me with my Bemba, and I help him with his math homework.

I’m still getting to know the rest of my neighbours. There are a number of small kids who are still fairly shy around me, but they usual line up along the path in the evening and wait for me to come home from work, smiling and greeting me with “Chungulo M-kwai”, which roughly translated means “Good evening” (this is definitely not a literal translation though). So far I am very happy with my new living arrangement. Everything from the friendly smiles and waves of my neighbours, to the beautiful sunrises through the large trees in our front yard (mango trees…I can’t wait for December when they’re ripe!), to the stunning sun sets behind our house (yes, that’s my latrine in the picture of the sunset). I’m not finding it very hard to have a smile on my face when I come home from work these days.

I have unintentionally started a running club in the mornings. I have been pretty good lately with my morning runs, and after a few weeks of seeing me run by at 5:30am, the three teenage girls that live across from me asked if they could join me. I of course said OK, and told them to be read the next day at 5:30am. I was awoken the next morning at 4:30am to whispers at my window – “Ba Freeman…..Ba Freeman….we run?” After a few confused moments, I look at the time, and tell them to wait an hour. When I eventually got up and came outside an hour later, they were still waiting for me, eager as ever. We had a nice short run that morning and they giggled almost the entire way. I was sure that the novelty would wear off, and they wouldn’t be back the next day, but it has been two weeks now and they’ve been waiting outside my door every morning since then. I’m thinking of having some t-shirts made. A running club should have uniforms, right?

I have also started taking Bemba lessons. My instructor is Mr. Nyamba, a teacher at Milenge Basic School. I have only been to one lesson so far, but I’ve arranged to show up near the end of the day a few times a week, and sit in with his grade 5 class for their Bemba lesson. After school lets out I stay a little while after and he works just with me. The kids are thrilled to have a Mazungu sitting in with them, and I for one am actually pretty excited to be back in school. I’ve already been scolded for throwing a paper ball at another child, and teaching a group of boys how to make paper airplanes. Things don’t change much!!

Lastly, I’ve been given a new name. I realized early on that Zambians have a hard time saying “Trevor”. I usually have to repeat my name 4 or 5 times before they get it, and I am still often called “Clever”, “Travel”, and “Treasure”. Additionally, first and last names are often randomly interchanged, so I get called “Freeman” as often as my various first names, and even sometimes introduce myself as “Freeman”. In light of this, the Lwando’s told me shortly after I moved in that I needed a Bemba name. I told them to wait until they knew me better, then pick something that had meaning. Names in many Zambian cultures usually have lots of meaning, and refer to a trait of the person, or refer to the circumstances surrounding that person.
The Lwando’s finally decided upon a name, after much deliberation. I am now known as Mapalo Chilufya Lwando. Mapalo means “Blessings” or “Blessed”. This is because the Lwando’s consider themselves blessed to be able to live with me, and I of course am blessed to be living with them. Chilufya refers to when you want something very bad, but can’t have it, so are left wanting. This is in reference to the Lwando’s moving to Mansa. They want to live with me, and I with them, but we are unable to, and are thus left wanting. Lwando of course is because I’m now a member of the family.

I’m thrilled with this new name, and all of my friends and coworkers here are as well. When meeting new people I often introduce myself as Mapalo, and this of course generates huge amounts of laughter. I am now greeted everywhere I go with shouts of “Mapalo!” or “Chilufya!”. I am hardly ever called “Mazungu” in Milenge anymore.

With one final round of handshakes with the community members digging the well, Eddy and I hop back on the bike and start off for home. The sun is getting low and the sky seems on fire above us. Even this late in the day, the heat is still oppressive. I glance at the parched, brown fields around us, thinking that soon the sights before me will be transformed. The rains are only a month away, and when they come a literal rebirth will occur in Milenge. The dry earth around us will drink in the water and new life will emerge. Brown will turn into green, dull into vibrant, parched into lush. That is not the only changes that will come however. Roads become impassable, entire villages are cut off, people move to temporary homes so they can work in the fields all day, poorly built structures (houses and latrines) will collapse, and construction work on our project stops. We have until the first rains to finish all of our construction. This means a busy few weeks for everyone involved. I’m looking forward to the rains, but am also a little bit apprehensive. For me, the rains will bring insight, and learning of the major role they play, but for the people around me they may bring either opportunity or disaster.

Water is, indeed, life.


Chris said...
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Chris said...

Brother....good post. Good to hear about some of the stuff going on over the last few weeks or so. Great pics too.

Your post really helps us remember just how important water is and what some people must do to get safe water. I know it helps me helps me to think more about how much water we use every day and try to be more thoughtful of it.

Take care. Talk soon.

Dayna said...

Such a great post - like Chris, I'll definitely be thinking more when I pour a glass of water or turn on a tap.

Sue Titcombe said...

Trevor, this is again amazing stuff to read.

You've shared lots of incredible stories already, but for me the story of your new name is the most meaningful. Wow!

And again, great pictures. You continue to be in our prayers.

ashleyr said...

Three cheers for me for reading this post AFTER I wrote you a super-sized email!! Now to delete many irrelevant questions, and to excitedly add in a jillion new questions!!

Ditto ditto itto with all the above folks. It was a wonderful post Trev, I'm taking notes on your supreme writing style for when I launch the anticipated-by-the-thousands Ashley in (some country TBA in) Afraica blog...

Haha - you rock, keep it real.


Colin Guthrie said...

Hi Trevor, amazing work my friend.

This past weekend (Oct. 19th - 21st) I attended the last camp at Glen Huron, the Micah Challenge weekend. Through out the weekend we were bombarded with images of Social Justice issues around the world. I was given a challenge by God on this weekend (no surprise, Floyd Tidd was speaking...).

I was challenged to do two things. One was to live this year and not buy anything new (with the exception of soap, etc.). This included the challenge was to look around me and really be intentional in thanking God for everything I have. My views of living simply were challenged again to truely use only what i need but to also push myself to discover what "need" really means.

The other challenge was to only use fairly traded products, but it was this first challenge that you have put a new face to. How many times have I spent long periods of time relaxing in a shower? Spent a little bit too much time cleaning my hair? How many times, just this week did I let the tap run for a few minutes to get it cold? You again have challenged me further. Thank you.

I will pray for you as you do God's work. Our scripture we looked all weekend was from Micah 6:8 "...And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." I pray as you are living this out you stay close to God. HE is the one who will sustain you long after the water dries out.

Be Well,


Navi said...

Good stuff Trevor. Your writing impresses me. Keep it up.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mapalo:
Bobbo here. What a great read. I saw your Mom on Sunday and she told me about the post. She had a tear in her eye and i understand why. I am so proud of you so I can only guess at how she is feeling.

As Colin said so eloquently, Stay with the water of Life and he will sustain you forever

Miss you Buddie

neil said...

Trevor your posts are amazing. The name you have been given says it all. You are a blessing to the people you are with and also to us so far away. Water is life and is something we here in North America take some much for granted. Thanks again for the posts, each one is a treasure. I will continue to lift you up in prayer. God bless.

Mr. C

Anonymous said...


Great to hear what you have been up to. It's very cool that your family gave you that name.


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Morris said...

Absolutely fascinating! You are an inspiration! I am very proud to see where you are and what you are doing. God be with you every step of the way buddy.

L said...


What a great reminder of what we take for granted everyday! I am just so intrigued by everything you are doing , and I will continue to pray for you along with your friends and family.

The story of your Bemba name is so amazing, and a true indication of your sincerity of your experiences and relationships there.

Take care...

Anonymous said...

Once again, thankyou for the sharing Trevor. You certainly help us to realize how much we take for granted. I've recently had surgery & I am unable to go to church presently, so I will take this as my reminder to thank God for his blessings. May God bless you to continue to do his work.
Dana S.

Geoff & Crystal Rousseau said...


It's so good to hear from you. This is some amazing stuff. I didn't know that you were such a gifted writer.

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Anonymous said...

I was so encouraged to hear of your experiences and service, I wanted to write and say thank you for being who you are and doing what you do... and sharing it with all of us.

I too have been unable to attend church for weeks due to surgery. You and your friends in Zambia, as well as the comments on your blog have been my church for today.

Blessings to you, Mapalo, man of blessings.

Allison Downey