Africa Lifelines: Water, Stuff of Life, Death

Africa Lifelines: A THREE-DAY SERIES

Engucwini, Malawi – Five times a day, Agnes Munthali hikes barefoot half a mile from a grass-roofed hut to fetch water for her thirsty children, balancing a sloshing 5-gallon bucket on her head. Corn barely sprouts from surrounding fields. Nearly half of Malawi’s 12 million people face starvation.

But water needs gnaw most urgently here and across rural Africa,
where 303 million villagers lack access to a safe source.
Waterborne disease kills thousands every day.

Munthali and others carry the buckets, weighing up to 45 pounds,
using bone, muscle and sheer will, while the gray Zombwe Mountains
loom in the distance.

On a recent clear morning, Munthali, a vivacious 35-year-old whose
smile reveals a missing front tooth, shrieked with laughter at an
outsider’s suggestion that the government will address water woes.

For villagers, government “doesn’t work,” Munthali said.
Villagers can’t even approach politicians, she said. If one did,
politicians “would turn him down.”

As it is, Munthali and her water- carrying neighbors consider
themselves lucky.

For the first time in years, the water they haul is clean – not
because Malawi’s government helped, but because Engucwini connected
with a private group of Americans half a world away.

The villagers teamed up with Water for People, a Denver-based group
that funds self-help projects. This year, the group arranged for
installation of a 150-foot-deep well within a mile of Munthali’s
mud-brick hut.

“I’m very happy about this,” she said.

More than 2,000 villagers a day flock to this well for clean water.
Previously, they had no choice but to drink contaminated water from
hand-dug pits.

Americans may assume the world’s poorest people suffer silently,
but more and more are able to ask for help using cellphones, e-mail
and other connections, circumventing corrupt or cumbersome
governments, said Solomon Nkiwane, a Zimbabwean political scientist
at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.

Villagers increasingly form committees and pursue their interests
anywhere they can find help, Nkiwane said.

“This people-to-people thing is beginning. It may be a drop in the
bucket. But maybe this is the approach we should take,” he said.

Malawian life expectancy has fallen from 42 years in the 1970s to
39 in recent years because of AIDS and diseases caused by
contaminated water. And income is falling. Farmers in this area
earn about $8 a month.

The project began a few years ago when the local doctor, Steven
Chavinda, 65, called chiefs together and asked: “What are your
greatest needs?” All the chiefs said the same thing: clean water.
One chief, Mishek Ndzima, had lost his son to cholera, spread by
feces in water.

Chavinda told a U.S. Peace Corps worker posted nearby, who informed
a Malawian who worked as regional coordinator for Water for People.
That led to installation over the past 18 months of two wells at a
cost of $25,000. Denver-based supervisors lined up a local crew to
drill the holes and oversee maintenance training.

“The best solutions come from sitting down as close to the problem
as possible and talking with the people,” said Steve Werner,
executive director of Water for People, at his headquarters in

Villagers worldwide propose dozens of projects each month, often
learning of the group through the Internet. Werner and 20 staffers
in five countries review all proposals. Sponsored by the American
Waterworks Association trade group, they fund what they can on an
annual budget of around $2.8 million: about 80 projects, including
40 wells from Bolivia to Vietnam.

In Malawi, the first of the two wells helped revive the local
health clinic. The clinic, built in 1984, for years offered only
limited services because of a lack of water. Government officials
never supplied medicine as they do at other rural clinics. Radios
for emergency communications weren’t maintained. A 10-bed maternity
wing never opened.

This year, villagers notified health officials that the clinic has
water from a foreign-funded well with a solar-powered pump. And
health-ministry crews delivered mattresses for maternity beds, said
Manford Nyirenda, 49, chairman of the village water committee.

“We pushed them into action,” Nyirenda said, smiling, finger on
the pump power switch.

At the other well, Munthali gripped a hand pump and pushed up and
down as the noon sun beat down. Clear water gushed from the tap.

Women and girls took turns filling blue and orange buckets,
chattering. Between buckets, girls jockeyed to drink from the tap,
including Munthali’s pride and joy, Memory, 8, in a torn red

Last year, Memory got sick after drinking contaminated water from a
shallow well. “Very bad for her,” Munthali said. Purifying water
by boiling was impractical, given limited wood in the area.

Most of the 18,000 villagers around Engucwini still rely on water
drawn from hand-dug pits. Cloudy, stagnant pools in the pits
contain bacteria that cause cholera and diarrhea, known locally as
“open bowels.”

Malarial mosquitoes breed in mud around the pools. Women wash
clothes close by.

At the health clinic, the doctor Chavinda recently faced Ester
Chiumia, 32, cradling her dehydrated month-old son, Samuel. She had
walked since sunrise to reach Chavinda in his concrete building
without electricity. Now it was noon.

Gazing down at her baby, Chiumia said Samuel had bloody diarrhea
and no appetite.

Chavinda looked at her silently at first. At that moment, he lacked
the right medication. He saw Chiumia practically shaking with fear.
He gave her a folded piece of paper containing a couple tablets of
an adult antibiotic – the closest substitute he could find – with
instructions to cut each pill in half.

Chiumia nodded, still worried. She told the doctor the water she
hauls “looks dark. … We have no choice.”

At least 150 villagers die around Engucwini each year from easily
preventable sickness from contaminated water, Chavinda said. Deaths
decreased a bit recently in the area around Engucwini’s two new
wells, he said, “but we’ve got a lot more work to do.” He
reckoned Engucwini needs at least 20 wells.

Today, girls skip school to join the stoic parade of women hauling
water. And mothers are resigned that contaminated water will kill

“We do take chances here,” one woman said, watching her
granddaughter, Tiyese Chirwa, climb down a log into a muddy pit and
dip her bucket into a plate-sized milky pool of water.

Some villagers here struggle to find water at all. At an outlying
area called Chileda, there are no wells within 5 miles for an
estimated 5,000 people. For them, even marginal water is precious.

Barefoot boys in raggedy clothes were there, some with bellies
bloated from malnourishment, crouched around a drying water hole.
They had been digging it out a bit trying to coax more water from
the ground. A saucer-sized cloudy white pool of water only grew
more opaque.

Desperate, Chileda chiefs recently dispatched Frank Kumwenda, 29,
to go to the regional capital, Mzuzu, for help.

He set out by bicycle at 4 a.m., bouncing down a dirt road. He
pedaled furiously, crossed the sewage-contaminated Kasitu River
before anybody was up and reached the pavement of Malawi’s main
north-south road.

Then, moving along faster, he noticed some roadside villages had
wells. “I compared them to us,” Kumwenda said. “We are still

Kumwenda drank from one well, savoring the water on his journey.

He reached Mzuzu and its government offices by 9 a.m.

“I found the secretary,” Kumwenda said.

He announced that he had come to get help for his village.

“The secretary said, ‘The boss is not in the office,”‘ he said.

When he rode home that afternoon after a fruitless wait and told
what had happened, the chiefs were angry.

Kumwenda planned to try again soon.

Meanwhile, Munthali, sitting with relatives at their tidy farm
compound, said she wants to be part of a local maintenance team to
make sure the new wells work properly.

Men had assumed they would travel for maintenance training, but
Munthali said, “We’ll need a good mix.” After all, women haul
most of the water.

And while acknowledging the pressing needs of villagers at Chileda,
she also proposed drilling a new well closer to her home.

Today, even with a clean water source a half mile away, she and
Memory still must devote much of each day to trekking back and

In America, “people have a much easier life,” Munthali said.
“How can that happen here?”



Cellphones, e-mail and migrants are connecting rural Africa with
urban America, creating new possibilities for action to address
Africa’s pressing problems. Private groups in Colorado and
elsewhere are reaching the villages where two-thirds of Africans
live. “Africa Lifelines,” a three-day Denver Post series,
explores these efforts.