“Shallow Wells” he calls out to his troop of five and six year old Malawian children. “Sharrow Wewws” they yell back in unison, as we marched back up the hill. The children are running to keep up with my partner and mentor and I am in their way. They cannot get enough of the Reverend Jeff Grote from Decatur, IL. “Shallow wells “ he calls out again. “Sharrow Wewws”comes the response. The letter “L” is not an easy sound for these young folks to fashion. We’re heading back up the hill to leave for the next well, at least a one-hour drive through the bush and foothills of the Kahingina Forest region of Central Malawi, south-east of the city of Muzuzu, our home base. We are leaving the village of Chanozga, home to 425 Malawians, 85 homes. We just completed installing two shallow wells for this village.
Rev. Jeff is on his fourth annual trip to Malawi installing shallow wells for the Marion Medical Mission organization. The kids are exited to be with Jeff because he engages the children at every well site by blowing bubbles, blowing up balloons and playing Frisbee with them. At first, the bubbles are a puzzle to the kids, one that some see as an adventure and some see as a possible threat. But once one of them tries to catch a bubble, the fun begins. During Jeff’s time with the children, our guide, interpreter and the area field officer is overseeing the well installation. I am checking out our GPS location and recording the depth of the well and water level. Jeff enjoys involving the village children by playing games with them. He asks them to tell him their names and he records it on his small hand held recorder. He asks them to sing. Then he plays the recorded names and music back over so they can hear their own voices for the very first time. They listen with amazement and they giggle at the recorded sound. The children will remember this day as one of fun and games, as brief as it is. They don’t know that this well that we just finished installing will prevent diseases from killing them. No more typhoid, dysentery or cholera. They now have fresh clean well water to drink for the very first time. The children will only remember this day as the day that they followed the “Pied Piper of Malawi”, Jeff Grote, back up the hill to an old green Toyota LandCruiser pick up truck.
We reach our vehicle and it is time to leave. There is just enough time to say “paweme”, goodbye in Timbuku, and the local language. We say, “Ye wo”, which means thank you. If we go now we have just enough time to reach the next well, install and dedicate it and get back home before the sun sets at 5:45 PM. Driving after dark is extremely dangerous.
Our field officer and guide, Mr. Mwanjikho is anxious to get moving and get one more well completed. We head off to the next village.
Our days begin at 5AM. The sun is up and we don’t want to waste a moment of daylight. By 5:30 AM we are loading up the truck with the days supplies of well parts and PVC pipes. Today I want to make sure that we have a special pipe that allows us to connect two 20 foot housing pipes that will guide the well plunger and pump connector pipe. This special housing pipe has an enlarged opening that facilitates connection of the two. Last Friday we needed an extension to the housing pipe. We didn’t have one and we couldn’t complete the well. It was too deep for the material that we had left. That village will have to wait a few more weeks for clean well water.
We check all the fluid levels under the trucks hood and make sure that tire pressure is correct. Not having enough water in the radiator or battery is not an option three hours out into the bush. Having had our breakfast at 6AM, we join our guide for the day, Mr. Silungwe. At 6:30 AM we head for the gas station for a fill up and to purchase the days lunch groceries. The groceries consist of bread, peanut butter and jelly, sodas and maybe some biscuit cookies. This is a large benefit to the Malawian guide and well maintenance workers. I would gather to say that it might be their meal for the day. Mr. Silungwe lets us know how many well installers we need plan for lunch. We are on our way north and west towards Eckwendeni, the gateway into the mountain area. We leave the tarmac, the only paved road that we will see until dark. The paved road is the Malawian version to our Interstates. The hard dirt road is their version of our state highways. Very soon, our” state highway “ becomes a county route, a dirt path for walking. But our Land Rover can drive through this. We now have to be concerned with “stubs’, a sharp pointed branch or twig growing up from the brush. Riding over this at too fast a speed means an instant flat tire or two. A little further down the road path is a dried up streambed. The crossing bridge is made up of a group of small 4-inch thick logs spanning the old stream. Someone needs to exit our vehicle and inspect the “bridge” crossing to guarantee safe passage across the span.
The day is Monday, October 8th. We will be working today at elevations of 1,400 meters or so, or about 4,500 feet. The air is a bit thin when you start walking to the well sites. We have been in Malawi about two weeks now and I thought that I would have adjusted to the thinner air by now. I make a mental note that on the next trip I will have to get myself in better shape.
Today we will finish five wells, providing clean water to 725 people in 128 homes and five villages. We arrive at our last well of the day about 3 PM. We have planned our day well. We have a two-hour drive back to Mazuzu. It should take us about 25 minutes to install, dedicate and provide use directions for the well.
Jeff engages the village children. I check out our GPS readings and await the well depth measurement from our Malawian staff of Lewis and Foster. Suddenly we discover that we may have a problem. The well depth is 25 feet with 10 feet of water. By well standards this is a monster. I am glad that we brought the extender pipe today. We go back to the truck for “the special” pipe and return, installing the well. The inside pipe, about 1 inch in diameter, to the plunger is an unruly length at 25 feet. It could easily snap from its own weight while we are moving it into position. The depth of the water also has the potential to cause the weight on the plunger to be too heavy to draw water. We don’t want to make the same mistake that we made earlier in our trip. Reverend Jeff is now fully involved in overseeing this well installation. I am glad to have someone here with so much experience. The team puts everything together and now we discover that the plunger will not reach the bottom of the well.
The team and villagers are now all working together. A local village musician is rhythmically beating a bongo drum, keeping all the children involved with singing and dancing. The village men are helping with the twenty- five- foot pipe as it is withdrawn from the well. It takes a man the size of Jeff to hold the assembly of 25 feet high enough to prevent damage. One of the village men has produced a tall “Y’ stick to help hold up the end of the assembly. We discover that the plunger cannot pass through the housing pipe joint. There must be a flaw in the thickness of the pipes. Quality control in the manufacturing of the housing pipes can become a problem in a pre-industrial agricultural society.
We are in trouble! We can see the sun dropping quickly to the horizon. If we leave, there will be no water for the village of Mhembwa. If we stay, we drive back in the dark. We decide to try something unusual that may work. We cut out the offending joint and our team of Malawians attempt to fashion a sleeve using a slightly larger in diameter pipe piece that is normally used as a down spout. They need to build a small fire and heat the pipe, then force it too expand over the housing pipe.
The musician is still working his crowd of dancers. Jeff and I are considering using a collared neck as the joint unit. Unfortunately, it is too small a piece of material and it would not really stand up to the every day stress that the pump plunger will create. The Malawian team has been in this situation before and they finally get the result that they hoped for. The sleeve works! The village men, the team and Jeff lift the 25 foot long and bending pipe up to drop it into the well. Success. The plunger passes through the joint and we have another successful well. There is celebration.
Jeff dedicates the well. He also makes sure that the villages of Mhembwa know that they have water today because of their fellow countrymen’s Lewis and Foster’s expertise, determination and resolution. A prayer is offered, a gift of a chicken and some groundnuts is given and we are on our way. The well installation and dedication took a 1-ï¿½ hours. Our drive home is 2 hours. We drive in the dark tonight, praying that we won’t hit a walker on the dirt or tarmac roads. We arrive in Muzuzu at 6:40 PM, one hour after sunset.
Dedicating a well is a special event. It makes the well installation special for the villages. It establishes the event. It is a day to celebrate.
We ask that the village gather. We greet them. “Monirea Mosea. Muli uli?” Hello to the group and how are you? Our Malawian Field Officer interprets for us to the villagers.
We bring you greetings from Marion Medical Mission, a group of Christian in the United States of America. We have heard of your need for clean drinking water and we have heard that you are a hard working people who are willing to dig the well, gather the stone and sand and make the bricks. We tell them that Jesus Christ has taught us to love one another and as an expression of our love for Jesus we have donated the cost of the concrete, the pipes and the pumps.
On the top surface of the well are the words imprinted ”Glory to God”, in your language and mine. We do this in hope that each time that you draw water from the well that you will remember that God provides and thank God and God alone for the gift of life, which is water.
We point out that this well belongs to them, their village. We remind them that with the ownership of the well comes the responsibility to maintain the well, to keep the area clean and to build a fence around it to keep any livestock away. We suggest that they pay the small maintenance fee annually to MMM. The fee is 1,000 kwacha. The fees are used to buy spare parts for the well should there be a breakdown.
We introduce to them their maintenance person, a man or woman that will come and repair the well should it be required. We advise them that these maintenance people are volunteers and that they receive no compensation from Marion Medical Mission. We suggest that it would be proper to provide a small gift to the maintenance person when they come. It is suggested that some vegetables, some eggs or a chicken would be appropriate. We pause to make sure that we have their attention. Then we wag a finger to indicate a no. “But no cow”, we state. The villagers always laugh.
Marion Medical Mission (MMM) is a not for profit organization that affiliates with the Presbyterian Church USA. MMM is an ecumenical, Christian, front- line, hands-on, volunteer, non-profit organization that strives to install shallow wells every year in Central Africa. The Shallow Well Program has been in existence since 1990, when the founder and president Tom Logan and his wife Jocelyn installed 100 wells. The MMM personnel are all volunteers. In 2006 1,093 wells were built.
The wells are being built in a number of areas in the northern half of Malawi located from 4 to 12 hours apart, in southern Tanzania and in eastern Zambia. There is little communication between areas and MMM has just 9 trucks, 35 volunteers and less than 42 days to get the job done. It’s not easy. Each well provides approximately 200 people with safe drinking water. If MMM meets their goal it will mean safe drinking water for more than 240,000 people.
A shallow well costs $350. The donation provides the cement, pipe, pump, skilled labor and training. Each village community owns and takes responsibility for their well. An established maintenance system provides readily available replacement parts at prices that a village can afford, about $7.00.
This year, the two teams of volunteers will build and install 1,200 wells before the rains come after November 15th. As of our return on October 12th the first team of 16 people had completed 639 wells. One hundred twenty four thousand six hundred people now have clean fresh water for the first time. The wells replace a water hole or a small shallow stream of green colored insect infested water. The new wells now near their villages mean clean water to drink, clean water to wash with and clean water for birthing. The wells mean life.
It is Tuesday, and we will install five more wells today. At the village of Gowa, the fourth of the day, the Pied Piper of Malawi calls me over to see a man and his daughter. The father wants to show us his 2-year-old little girl. She is beautiful. She is afraid of us. She tries to pull away from her father. She has never seen a Mazungu before (a white person). The man speaks no English and we do not speak Timbuku. But the message is clear. This little girl, a precious pearl in the eyes of her father, will now grow, mature and become the person that God has intended her to be. The father is now hopeful for her future. Jeff and I understand.