My job as a shallow wells volunteer was to drive a truck carrying pipes and pumps to remote villages, and to help install and dedicate new protected shallow wells for villages that previously did not have access to a protected water supply. Each well is hand-dug by the villagers, and typically goes down 15 to 25 feet deep to reach the water table. It is lined with brick, and capped with a cement slab, to guard against contamination from dirty surface water. The water is pumped using a very simple hand pump installed in the center of the top slab. The pump is locally constructed from galvanized and PVC pipes. On the top slab, the builders inscribe, in English and the local language, “Glory to God,” and “Uchindami kwa Chiuta” (if it was a Tumbuka-speaking village). I was accompanied by Malawian field officer and a Malawian installation supervisor. We left shortly after sunrise and often returned after dark.
Once you leave one of the very few paved roads in Malawi, the roads range from pretty good gravel roads, to truly terrible roads that have not been maintained for a decade or more, to barely passable tracks. It was not unusual to have to crawl along for more than 30 minutes in first and second gears. On several days, we encountered no other vehicle for 9-10 hours, until we returned to the tarmac. When a bridge across a stream was no longer passable, there was usually a shunt around the bridge which took you steeply down one bank, and then steeply up the other side. Luckily, this was the end of the dry season – in the rainy season, these crossings would be impassible even by four-wheel-drive vehicles. If the road was reasonably decent, we could fly along at 40-50 km/hour (25-30 mph), trailing a big cloud of billowing dust, driving though the clouds trailing the occasional oncoming vehicles, but always on the lookout for potholes and washouts requiring a much lower speed.
Sometimes, we had to carry the pumps, pipes, and tools more than a mile from the truck to the well site. When we arrived at the well site, we found a completed shallow well ready for the installation of the pumps, which was our job. The Malawian team members did most of the work of cutting the pipes to the correct length to fit the well depth, and assembling the pump, while I did the record-keeping: GPS coordinates and elevation, demographic information on the village, well depth and water depth, and other information. When all was in readiness, and the pump tested, it was time for the dedication. I spoke in English, which was translated into the local language by the field officer. Then, the installation supervisor a gave a demonstration and instructions on how to properly use the pump. Finally, the village headman or other senior person said a few words of thanks, and I took a digital picture of the villagers assembled around the new well. We were usually presented with a chicken or other small gift of food, as a reciprocal gift. Then, it was back to the truck and more driving to another well. My installations tended to be more geographically separated those of some of the other volunteers, but nevertheless I managed to help install 55 wells in as many villages, serving more than 14,000 people.
If it was just a matter of spending long hours eating dust under a broiling African sun, then it could as well have been a visit to a somewhat inconveniently located dude ranch, where city slickers pay to get hot and sweaty doing outdoor work. I enjoyed the challenges, but that was not the main reason I came. The statistics say 40 percent of Malawians do not have access to an improved source of drinking water, and the reality out in the countryside can be appalling. I saw many water sources used every day by the villages we visited, open holes with a liquid in the bottom that looked like dishwater after you have washed the pots and pans. Or, the water source could be a stagnant stream containing slimy water. One village’s “well” was a hole with just a bit of moisture in the bottom when I saw it one afternoon. Desperate villagers would come in the middle of the night in the hope of getting a little water before someone else got it first. Or, villagers might have to walk long distances to find decent water. The clear water gushing out of the spout after the pump was installed on the new well looked mighty good to me, and certainly to the villagers. Waterborne diseases like dysentery and cholera are a real problem with unprotected, open water sources. One volunteer told the rest of us how a health officer had described severe and recurring cholera epidemics that once had ravaged his area, and that had entirely vanished with the installation of protected shallow wells.
And the villagers did appreciate their new well. Malawian villages might look the same from a distance, but close up each had its own personality. Ngoni villages tended to be more expressive and flamboyant, while Tumbuka villages tended to be more reserved. Even within tribal groups, there were many differences. We were often serenaded by singing and dancing women as the pump went into the new well. Sometimes there were drums, and in one case someone produced a battered boombox to add an accompaniment. We always found adults and children eager to help us carry the pump, pipes, and tools from the truck to the well site. Often villagers would cluster around, eager to shake my hand and greet the visiting American. The rural Malawians that I encountered are desperately poor by our standards, they live in huts of mud bricks with dirt floors and roofed with grass, they dress in ragged clothing, they live always on the edge of starvation if the harvest of maize (corn) they grow in small “gardens” is poor, but they also have a certain dignity and expressiveness that suggests complexities in their lives that this visiting American can only imagine.
It was a very positive experience, and my favorable impression of Marion Medical Mission – and its local partner, the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP) Livingstonia Synod – was only strengthened. So now let me tell you something about MMM (www.marionmedical.org). It is a nonsectarian, Christian charitable foundation headquartered in Marion, Illinois. It has several policies that I find attractive. First, 100% of all designated contributions are spent for the designated purpose, and 100% of all undesignated contributions are spent in the mission field in Africa. Nothing is deducted for administration and overhead, not even for a postage stamp. Everything on the US side is done by volunteers. We volunteers pay our own travel expenses to Malawi and our room and board while we are here. Second, MMM places a strong emphasis on partnership and self-help. Villagers make a significant contribution to the shallow well. They dig the well, make the bricks to line it, and carry in the sand and gravel for construction. Marion Medical Mission provides the things the villagers cannot, including a skilled builder to construct the well, plus the cement, pipes, and pump.
Third, working closely with the CCAP Synod of Livingstonia Protected Water Programme, they put a great deal of effort into providing a framework so that the local people can keep the wells operating after they are installed. Each village forms a committee with responsibility for helping to determine the site for the well and for overseeing its operation. Half the members must be women, for it is the women who traditionally fetch the water. Villages are grouped into zones, with each zone designed ideally to be about one hour travel time by bicycle in radius. In addition, a trained volunteer maintenance man is assigned to each village, with each maintenance man responsible for perhaps 10 to 20 wells. Villagers are expected to pay an annual maintenance fee of 1000 kwacha per village (about seven dollars), which the Zone Committee uses to purchase spare parts so that they will be readily available when they are needed to repair a broken pump. Although the maintenance man is a volunteer, villagers are expected to give him a chicken if he repairs the pump promptly (or, her – I think that a few of the maintenance people are women).
MMM has been building the shallow wells here since 1990, and they have constructed about 5500 up to this year, serving more than one million people. They have also provided substantial and ongoing support to several Malawian schools, and to other worthwhile projects here. The main focus, however, is the shallow wells program. This year, more than 1000 wells will have been installed in Malawi, mostly in the Northern Region, and in neighboring areas of Zambia and Tanzania. Efficient management, use of volunteers (the key Malawian staff are paid, however), and strong, committed leadership have enabled MMM to install wells for only $300 each, much less than other organizations doing similar work. Donors can “purchase” a well for the $300 it costs to build one, and each such donor will get a picture of their well, with one of the women villagers trying the pump, surrounded by other villagers, women, men, and children. One of my jobs was to take a dedication picture at each well, to print two copies every evening (one for the village and one for the donor), and to write the key information about the village on the back. If by chance you bought a well this year, you might soon receive a picture of one of “my” wells.