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Sabina: The Rest of the Story

216955_10150151653281487_624002_nHave 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Drought and Despair

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a die-hard advocate for the people of Niger. With one short and unreliable rainy season per year, the Sahara Desert threatening to overtake sparse crops, the highest fertility rate in the world, and often ranking in last place on the world’s development index, Niger needs our help.

I truly believed I’d never find people poorer than those I knew in Niger.

And then I went to Kenya.

Mamaselina, age 30, and her seven children were the first family who showed me that poverty can hit hard in other places too. I remember walking the rocky path to their home and noting that while the landscape looked green, it was a mirage. The bushes and trees weren’t lush, they were either cactus or branches full of thorns. There were no fields, no crops, no water sources.

To get water for her family, once per day Mamaselina walks two hours to the nearest river. She’s able to carry about 20 litres back home, which would be enough for one of us to take a two-minute shower or flush the toilet twice. My upstairs bathtub faucet drips about this much each day.

If her children have enough energy, they might join her in the task, carrying 5 litres each. That barely puts a dent in what they actually need, though. The minimum standards are 25 liters per person per day. As a result, each child is rationed one cup of water to bathe with once per week.

During her two-hour trek back home, Mamaselina will collect firewood–adding it to her 44 pound burden of water–in hopes that she can sell it for a few shillings at a nearby market. This is her only source of income to buy food. On the day we visited, only the two smallest children had eaten a bit of porridge. No one else in the family had eaten since they boiled some maize the day before.

I looked around the compound as we spoke with Mamaselina. Besides the mud hut, there was almost nothing to indicate that people lived there. No granary, very few dishes or utensils, barely any possessions even inside of the hut. I could see why she wasn’t worried about locking up her home during her daily trek for water. What could anyone steal?

The destitution was obvious in Mamaselina’s answers to our questions as well:

We asked if she knew why little Julia (left) was often sick, with a swollen belly and dull, yellow eyes. “Who knows?” she replied.

Do her children ask her to give them food when they are hungry? “No, they are used to being hungry.”

I was shocked at her fatalistic sentiments when we asked if she felt the baby she was nursing was receiving enough milk. “I believe the little milk the child is getting is enough and she will be used to this life.”

At 7-months old, how sad that a baby should already be resigned to a life of hunger.

Does she have hope? “I just believe that God will help me. There is nothing I can do.”

I wanted to argue. But what could she do?

In that thorny, hot, remote, dry landscape, Mamaselina needs resources. So what can we do? Pray. Donate. Help.

We emptied our water bottles into the family’s plastic jugs, hoping that would at least help a little. And we returned home to tell the story.

I often think of Julia, and her younger sister Chathrine. During our visit someone had placed a handful of thick-skinned fruits into an empty bowl and handed it to them. I’d already noticed how the toddlers simply sat in the shade, too tired and hungry to be playful. But it was equally disturbing to watch them with the bowl of fruit. Suffering from chronic hunger, you’d think they would have dug in and devoured it as quickly as they could. I know my two-year old would do that if she had a bowl of candy. But Julia and Chathrine mostly just held the fruits protectively, and picked at one. The toddler impulse had been replaced by the wisdom to ration the food and make it last.

When Camels Die

Even before I arrived I knew that a harsh drought was hitting Kenya. In fact, one of our main goals of the trip was to document how the drought is impacting the lives of children in the areas where we work.

To be honest, though, I worried that we’d have a hard time finding stories that really illustrated the drought’s severity. I feared that, because the rainy season had already begun, the landscape would be too green and lush to provide the dry, desolate, desperate backdrop that makes a fundraiser’s job relatively easier.

I thought I’d never see a place poorer than Niger. I had no idea what I was about to experience.

We passed this camel carcass on our first day in the Lokori region. “That’s it!” we, the marketers, thought. “That’s the image we need to show the world that there’s a drought happening!” I mean, camels are supposed to be able to go for days without any water, right? So, finding a dead camel in the middle of a dry riverbed is a pretty powerful story.

But it’s only the beginning of the story.

We didn’t pass any more carcasses, but the further we ventured into Turkana, the more confused I became as to how the people there are able to survive. We drove through countless sandy riverbeds. Flying over the terrain a few days later, the dried up rivers looked like veins across the landscape — withering trees along their banks defining the dead rivers from the rest of the sandy earth.

Once every couple of hours we would pass someone walking along the path. They’d look at us, and we’d stop to offer a bottle of water. I am sure that if the Land Cruiser had dropped me off at any point during the journey, I would have died before finding water.

We finally arrived at a site where our staff distribute emergency food rations to the most vulnerable families. When we got out of the car, all I could think about was finding shade. The sun was pushing down on me and it hurt. I glanced all around and there was nothing but sand and shrubs. No trees were tall or full enough to provide more than an inch of cool relief. The few shelters that had been constructed to protect from the sun were packed full of people. In fact, if I’d been deaf and pointed at 90% of the visible space, I would have thought myself completely alone in the desert. In actuality, there were several hundred people crammed in the tiniest of shaded space.

I felt desperate. I couldn’t even concentrate on the introduction being given about our programs. I became angry when a teammate asked a question, keeping us in the sun for seconds longer. Finally, I walked away from the group, and occupied a one-foot wide sliver of darkness I’d spotted beside our newly-emptied food storage facility.

And then we heard people’s stories. A nomadic culture, the community began congregating together a few years ago as a defense mechanism. As the available resources — water, grazing land, food — became depleted, tensions rose and tribal conflict developed. Raids on goats and cattle increased. Herders were killed. Widows and children settled in self-made camps in hopes of finding strength in numbers.

They found strength and protection, but it brought new problems. Livestock that hadn’t been stolen in raids were now dying from drought. There isn’t enough land for the animals to graze when families are so concentrated in one area. And because areas near the water sources are the most dangerous, the communities established themselves remotely. This means that women are forced to leave their hungry, thirsty, sun-suffering children at home while they trek for a full day to fetch water. When they return, the children are so dehydrated, that they vomit up anything their mother gives them to eat or drink.

I’m at a loss for how to give this blog post a happy ending. I thought I’d seen poverty in Niger, and I did. But there are people even worse off than what I knew there. People who have no possessions whatsoever. People who don’t know if they’ll have a meal from one day to the next. People who have to cross the desert in search of water for their children to drink.

I guess I’ll just make a plug for charity. When I talk about having lived in Africa, so many people tell me, “I could never do that.” And I always think, “we’re so lucky that we have a choice where to live.” And, really, humans are tough. If we’d been born deep in the Kenyan desert, we would have fought to survive too. Instead, we were amazingly blessed to be born in America. But that doesn’t mean we should live in a bubble. People — children — would literally die without food and water brought in by charities. So give to help them out. And give generously. Give because you have food and water and money to spare.

But Do They Love Each Other?

Maybe I should explain a bit about how this trip works…

My team’s main goal is to find compelling stories and photos that illustrate both the need and success of our organization’s work. Since there’s only one photojournalist among us, that leaves the two guys and me — the marketers — to make ourselves useful. I often assist with the interviews, asking questions that I feel our donors would be interested in hearing the answers to. Other times we’ll talk with local staff about how the programs work. Frequently I’ll ask the guys to distract large groups of children (the kids really gravitate to the two big white men as soon as they exit our vehicle!).

At our first site visit, we noticed that it seemed a bit overwhelming for a family to have four of us strangers listening to their story. And it was hindering the women from opening up about their lives. So we devised a plan. The guys would go to another part of the yard with the father and any other local men who had congregated, while the gals conducted the main interview with the mother. This is when we truly began to learn of the women’s hardships.

The stories are depressingly similar. Daily, the women walk three hours EACH WAY to fetch water from the nearest source. They leave immediately after eating in the morning, since that’s when they have the most energy. They might not eat again that day. On the way back home they gather tree branches that they’ll burn into charcoal in order to have money to buy food. If they aren’t able to sell the charcoal, they won’t eat that day. I glance around their yards and notice the lack of possessions. The children sit near their mother — partly because they’re shy, but mostly because they’re too weak to play. Some days the mothers are too weak themselves to collect water. I can’t imagine what quiet, sad days those must be. No food to prepare. No friends nearby to empathize with. No laughter from the children. No belongings to distract from the hunger and thirst.

“And what about the husbands?” we ask. And that’s when we realize our strategy is a good one. Many of the women admit that theirs was an arranged marriage; arranged at a very young age and against their will. One lady even told us how she was circumcised, and then given immediately in marriage once the wounds had healed. Many of the husbands had multiple wives, and favored one family over another. Or, at least, they weren’t full involved in supporting both, if either. Men don’t fetch water for the family. Men don’t gather wood for charcoal. Men don’t care for the children. Even our staff admit that the general development understanding is, “If you help a woman, you help the family.”

I was getting discouraged. I mean, I’d seen this a lot in Niger, but I guess it is more painful now that I know how it feels to have a loving husband who cares for my family. So as we drove to the next village I had to ask my teammates, “Don’t these men and women love each other?” I believe we’re created with an innate desire to love and be loved, and that this is what drives our desire for companionship in a spouse. So, shouldn’t that be a universal drive? What we were seeing, at least on the surface, didn’t seem like love. At least not a love that I can understand.

Then we met the couple photographed above. At first I thought this was the same story — an arranged marriage, a life of poverty and hardship. But as we prepared to leave their home I saw a tenderness between them, and then I heard what the guys had learned in their side of the interview. The wife recently had a miscarriage and was hospitalized. For two weeks, her husband stayed by her side in the hospital. When they returned home, she was still too weak to work so he fetched the daily water and cared for the children. Even though “men don’t do that.” He loved her.

And he gave me hope.

The Fiery Serpent Dies in Niger

my Worm Week counterpart and friend, Abdou

It’s been plaguing mankind since the 2nd century B.C., but now people in 2 of the 5 remaining countries where it’s recently been found are finally free. This week, the Carter Center announced the eradication of Guinea worm in Niger and Nigeria.

What’s remarkable about the campaign to eradicate Guinea worm is that it doesn’t rely on vaccines or medicines. This parasite can only be terminated through awareness and intervention.

I am honored to have played a small role in promoting Guinea worm awareness in Niger nearly 11 years ago.

“Worm Week” had become an annual tradition by the time I joined Peace Corps Niger. Volunteers would travel with a counterpart/interpreter to spend a week roaming sandy, seemingly-deserted paths in the most remote parts of eastern Niger around Zinder. The goal was simply to share the story of Guinea worm with anyone we met. We carried an 8×10 laminated picture presentation, showing that the worm larvae lived in stagnant water, and that when a person drinks that water without filtering it, the worm can come along for the ride. Then, the worm grows and grows and grows until mating season, at which time it burrows through the host’s skin (usually out the leg, but sometimes it protrudes from much less convenient body parts) to release its eggs back into the stagnant water. Guinea worm is not usually fatal in and of itself, but it can cause severe pain and paralysis, and lead to deadly infections. Plus, there aren’t many things creepier than the thought of a parasite poking out through one’s body. Gross.

I never saw one in real life, but my trusty friend Abdou and I trekked all over the dry landscape for a week making sure everyone heard the Guinea worm horror stories. The scare tactic seemed justifiable, since all it would take is one season of no one contracting Guinea worm for the parasite to become eradicated. And all people needed to do to avoid Guinea worm was to filter or boil their water. But there were always those few people who didn’t get the memo. Even though I walked so much that week that my feet turned bloody with blisters, it would take several more years of convincing before Guinea worm would die out.

It’s kind of strange that I picked Abdou to be my interpreter; he and I could only communicate in Hausa. But, what made Abdou such a good friend at the time, was that he was someone who seemed to know exactly what I was trying to say, and could rephrase it in correct Hausa for others to understand. Abdou and I never had trouble communicating with one another, and we’d sit and talk for hours. So, when I heard that our counterparts would be paid for their efforts, I decided that my friend deserved the job. It was an amazing week of confidence-boosting for me, having to do real work with no one nearby who spoke French or English.

There were some moments during Worm Week that I’ll never forget. The first was when Abdou and I were dropped off with our host family, who occupied a small encampment atop a slight hill with no barriers at all from the expansive desert plains. I wasn’t quite sure how the sleeping arrangements would work in this very conservative, very male-dominated society. Abdou and I were shown our (OUR?!) hut — which was essentially a tiny, cleaned out animal hut. We had to literally crawl to get through the opening, and we couldn’t stand up inside. It didn’t seem appropriate at all that we would sleep in there, so instead we just kept our bags inside and set up our mosquito nets under the stars. I can’t remember exactly, but I must have worn the same clothes that entire week — where would I have changed in privacy?

Speaking of privacy, there really was none. In the early morning, Abdou and I would silently go our separate ways in search of a bush that was high enough to hide behind and take care of business. I walked far and squatted quickly, sure that anyone in sight would be staring at me. Oh how I missed my latrine.

And then it was time for my weekly bath.

Back in Tokoye-Bungou, I would have bathed every evening, but out in Guinea worm land, water was much more scarce. One evening when Abdou and I returned from our day of wandering, I noticed that a bathing area had been established on the edge of the compound, and I was given a calabash half-full of water to bathe with. There was only about a gallon of water in the bowl, but as soon as night fell completely, I would make do.

Now, when I say that a bathing area had been established, what I mean is that our host found a 3-foot-high by 3-foot-wide piece of straw mat and strung it up on a few sticks just beyond the huts. Behind this fortress, exposed in every other possible direction to the vast expanse of desert beyond the huts, a blindingly white girl would strip down and bathe. I didn’t really doubt the decency of those in our compound — they’d be aware that I was bathing, and would never invade my privacy — so I figured I could manage a quick bath once it was dark. I remember there was a crescent moon that night — bright enough that it wasn’t pitch black out, but not so bright that you could read by it. I carried my ration of water behind the bathing wall, squatted down low, and removed the cloth I’d wrapped around myself. I scooped just enough water to wet my skin, then started scrubbing with soap.

It was about that time that I heard the greeting “Salaam Aleikum!” — the traditional announcement when someone arrived for a visit. I gasped silently. Not 20 feet away from where I squatted (NAKED!), two men had arrived from the bush to visit my host family. And, to my horror and embarrassment, they remained standing and chatting right where they entered, plainly within sight of me, illuminated dimly by the moonlight.

It was no small feat of discretion with which I rinsed off and re-clothed myself. I stared at the men intently throughout the last half of my bath, and they seemed unaware of my presence even as I emerged freshly clean. But it would be uncharacteristic of a rural Nigerien to not notice there was a white person nearby. So I will forever wonder if — while I now laugh at the memory of being “walked in on” during my exposed bath — there are a few old men in Zinder laughing about the time they saw a naked white girl when they went to greet their friends one night.

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