Dawn is just breaking and I am behind the wheel of a 4-wheel drive truck loaded up with pipes and pumps and headed off into the farthest reaches of the Malawian bush to install shallow water wells in remote villages. Chances are my partner and I will not return until well after sundown. A granola bar for lunch, hikes up and down mountains in intensely hot African sun, driving conditions that defy description, only to return to sleep in accommodations that are, at best, sketchy.
So why return year after year to this boot-camp/fat-farm existence? Well, there is certainly something to be said for working with a wonderful team of volunteers under the auspices of Marion Medical Mission in an effort to bring clean, safe, sustainable sources of drinking water to remote African villages suffering from devastating waterborne diseases. This year alone, Marion Medical Mission worked hand-in-hand with thousands of Africans to install over 2000 shallow water wells in Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia, bringing clean water to over 400,000 people. What a privilege to be a part of such an effort!
But it is more personal than that. There is so much to be learned from these wonderful people and so much to be gained from working with this unique shallow water well program.
Empowerment. Imagine driving a big truck loaded with pipes, pumps and workers over rutted, incredibly steep mountain roads, goat paths and bridges made of sticks. Imagine what it feels like to hike for over an hour with African villagers up and down mountains, through vast valleys, banana groves and maize fields, across bare rock and parched earth to reach a well-site. All your nerve cells are alive. Your eyes and ears and heart are receiving sights, sounds and emotions you’ve never imagined. The intensity of the experience — the hard work, concentration, heat and exhaustion — is staggering. Yet when you go to bed at night, you feel totally satisfied, reflecting on what you accomplished that day and feeling stronger and more capable than you ever dreamed possible.
Renewal. You are hot, tired, dirty and your brains and teeth have been rattled by the hour-plus drive over ox-cart paths and worse to the village. But then you dance and sing and laugh at the well-site with women celebrating the first clean water they have ever had in their village. And you watch the magical scene of children rushing to put their hands in the sparkling clear water flowing out of the pump. It is absolutely impossible to leave that village without a complete replenishment of your physical and spiritual energies.
Purpose. Working with a team that shares the single goal of bringing clean water to over 2000 villages in a very short period of time tends to center and focus you in an amazing way. You find that your intentions and thoughts and actions are all totally in accord. Nothing extraneous is going on. The resultant sense of purpose, peace and the “alrightness” of life are extraordinary.
Perspective. No one could walk away from an experience like the one afforded by working with Marion Medical Mission without having gained a broadened, more inclusive perspective of the world community. Walking to the well-sites surrounded by African villagers, it is all but written in bold letters across the blazing African sky: We are all one. It is a message that gets more deeply ingrained in my heart each year, and I am ever so thankful for it.
So, simply put, I go to help, but I also go to be nourished — to feed my soul with work, laughter and purpose. The experience is a clear reminder that we are indeed all one, all part of the same creation, all put here to help and love each other. It transcends language, culture, religion and skin color, breathing life into all that is best in each of us.
[NOTE: this article first appeared in “The Birmingham News” on December 6, 2009]