Have you ever had one of those moments when you really didn’t want to do something, but had to do it anyway, and then you find yourself on the other side with a huge smile and a happy heart? That happened to me in Kenya.
You see, I had an agenda. It wasn’t often that someone from my team had the chance to travel to the field, so I was determined to make the most of it, to maximize the life-or-death story gathering potential out of every minute. And in a place where visiting just one rural family requires a two-plus hour drive each way over rocky hills and footpaths, I didn’t have time for a side trip to witness a successful (not need-focused) story about water (not food) programs.
But while I was the leader of our small team, I hadn’t anticipated the influence of Moses — the inspiring leader of the local office where we were guests. He was the type of man who demands, and then actually warrants, respect. And he wanted us to go visit Sabina and her family.
I knew about Sabina; she was somewhat of a celebrity in the story-telling world of our work. Two of my colleagues (and, might I add, two of the most talented people I know) had spent time with the Kenyan woman a year earlier to learn about and experience for themselves Sabina’s greatest challenge — bringing clean water to her family.
Ever since she was a little girl, Sabina had spent four hours every day in pursuit of water. She traveled to the closest river — over sand, rocks, and thorn bushes, and under the relentless African sun — one hour each way two times per day. At the river she would dig a hole in the sandy shore to create a pool of fresh water with which to fill up her canister. Then she carried the 70 pounds of water back home and used it to cook, clean, wash clothes, and bathe her children.
The endless need for water meant that Sabina hadn’t enjoyed the freedom to attend school, and it meant that she couldn’t pursue other activities that would benefit her family, like planting and tending a garden.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to meet Sabina. It’s just that I thought the most compelling part of her story had already been told. But I was wrong.
We arrived at Sabina’s home in the late afternoon and found that she was out running an errand. Even though it was our fault for being hours late, I felt selfishly justified in my opinion that this visit was not worthwhile. But we were there, so we might as well wait for Sabina to return.
We weren’t alone as we waited. Some young children were among those at the compound when we arrived, and as we stood nearby they began quietly singing a simple tune.
I asked one of our guides to translate the words. The children were singing: “My heart loves so much Kari.” And then my heart began to soften as I thought about how sweet it was that they remembered with fondness the colleague who had come before us.
As I walked slowly around Sabina’s compound, I began noticing some remarkable things. Like how she’d built a storage shelf to keep her modest collection of plates and cups perfectly stacked above the ground. And how, instead of relying on the open landscape as a bathroom, she’d constructed an actual walled-off latrine space out of the ever-present thorns. And how despite the dirt, the chickens, and the kids all around, her home was spotless. She owned very few possessions, but what she had was clean, tidy, and organized — even down to the decorative rock barrier she built to distinguish the area around her hut from the yard beside it.
I thought about how unfortunate it was that Sabina was denied an education. A woman with so much natural drive could have accomplished great things with the right tools. Thankfully, she’d recently had a significant tool added to her life. A massive water project undertaken in her region had resulted in the installation of a spigot right in her back yard. Now, Sabina no longer has to walk to the river twice a day for the water her family needs to survive. Now a new chapter of her life begins.
Sabina demonstrated for us how easy it is for her to access clean water now. She happily filled every container she had on hand, and offered a refreshing drink to her husband and children.
Along with every task, she sang. Her song was a constant part of her life, and those around her joined the chorus.
We were delighted to see how quickly Sabina’s life was transformed by having clean water within reach. But part of why we came to visit her that day was to bring a little more delight into her life.
Sabina’s story had been featured in a recent issue of our organization’s magazine, and we brought copies for her to keep. In a part of the world where facebook and instagram are as incomprehensible as time travel, it’s a pretty big deal for someone to see themselves in a photograph. Her ambitious (but until now, denied) spirit burst through as she thanked us for the gift and asked, “What can I do to read this, since I didn’t go to school?” Then Sabina and her best friend, Christina, began jumping and waving their hands in the air as they laughed and shouted words of happiness and thanks. The outburst enthralled and engulfed us all.
As the sun set someone opened up a laptop. And someone else brought over a case full of coca cola. The real fun was about to begin. The entire community gathered around on makeshift benches or the dirt ground to get a view of the little screen propped up on a stool. They sipped the warm liquid treats and stared enamored by the video documenting their lives before water came to their home.
They didn’t understand the words they heard, but only they truly know the meaning of the story.
After our team said heartfelt goodbyes to Sabina and her family, we began a precarious trek along the short path back to the Land Cruiser, ultimately relying on the light of our iPhones to guide the way. “We’re so weak,” I thought to myself, “Sabina’s lived her whole life without running water and we can’t even walk 50 feet in the dark without the help of an iPhone.”
That’s when I realized that God had used this visit to change my heart. My agenda wasn’t as important as witnessing lives transformed. My plans weren’t so pressing that there wasn’t room to share joy. My ideas weren’t so concrete that they couldn’t be moved by an extraordinary woman and her overflowing spirit.