Liberia: soap and healing.

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charity: water has been working in Liberia since 2007, funding clean water and hygiene training for villages in mostly rural areas. One of our local partners here, EQUIP Liberia, has worked in the country for nearly three decades, through civil war and reconstruction. In August 2010, the charity: water team traveled to Liberia to monitor our work in the field. Here is our story:

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handwashing

Rain has never been so loud. I can’t hear a thing.

Until Dave opens his mouth, that is.

“Do you use soap to wash? Every day?” he roars. Dave Waines is the director and founder of our local partnering organization, EQUIP Liberia. He’s grilling a room full of locals in Nimba County about the sanitation practices in their village. Well, he’s trying to. But rain pelting the zinc roof above our heads is so loud, it’s hard to have a conversation.

A man finally calls out: “Yes! We do. All the people in the village! We have soap in every house.”

“You have soap in every house?” Dave howls. “Yeah, right! Let me see, I’ll go knock on every door.”

We’ve interrupted the water and sanitation workshop here to see how charity: water’s funds for hygiene training are being put to work. Nearly every project we fund has a hygiene and sanitation component built in, to maximize success and drive down waterborne disease rates. The workshop attendees here are volunteers, wearing bright yellow and blue t-shirts with “Community Health Ambassador” (CHA) and “Pump Caretaker” printed across the chest. The CHA’s job is to practice cleanliness in their own lives and teach their neighbors to do the same. They know that hand-washing alone can reduce water-related deaths by up to 45%. They also collect small fees from the community to pay for well repairs — and then the Pump Caretakers handle well maintenance over time.

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This isn’t a job they take lightly. The way they see it, they’re not just making sure a water pump works: they’re changing the entire way their community lives, and saving lives in the process. Which is why they’re quick to answer us with confidence that their village is cleaner.

It turns out, not every house does have soap, as it’s expensive and hard to come by out here. But they do have ashes. A CHA with a big, white smile shows me how she uses them to wash her hands. “I do it everyday!” She’s proud to teach me: the caustic soda in wood ashes disinfects like the lye in soap. Dried ash cleans skin like any old bar of Dial.

We’re constantly learning new things in the field. This trip is no exception; from the CHA’s simple health tips to the best way to tuck your mosquito net into your bed. And then there’s Dave Waines, who has worked in Liberia for 24 years and never gets sick of talking about it.

Dave brought his family to Nimba County in 1986, where he then lived through Liberia’s “hell-on-earth war,” as he calls it. Ask him for stories and he’ll keep talking excitedly until you can barely handle it — Peter. Martha. Cecilia. Rose. He remembers every name. He remembers every child lost. He remembers every wave of dysentery that swept the villages following the war, after water projects had been looted by rebels and left broken. As we drive eight hours each day with him over washed-out roads, we notice Dave’s constantly on the lookout for old friends. When we spot someone, he orders the Land Cruiser to a halt and gets out to greet them. When we ask who they are, he smiles for a minute and reminisces. When he tells you their story, he cries.

dave

What brings tears isn’t just the horrible past — it’s the resolve of those who survived. The people of Nimba are forgiving, in ways few of us could ever imagine. During the 14 years of brutal civil war, many people here watched as their family members and their friends were murdered or raped. They fled from horrific acts of violence. They lived in the jungle for stretches of weeks or months at a time, without food, shelter or clean water. When the violence subsided, they returned to their villages to see their houses and their community water projects torn apart. Then, they had to start all over. Sometimes, they had to do it alongside the very people who had hurt them in the war.

Dave lived through it, too. He’ll attest: the fear and the caution is still here. But communities are slowly learning to trust one another again. They have goals to accomplish together; they have water projects to share the responsibility for.

* * * *

On our fourth day in the country, we venture to the furthest regions of Nimba to meet the village of Gbeivonwea (pronounced “Bay-von-wee-a”). Dave can’t talk about the women here without getting choked up. Not only have most of the surviving residents of this area found their way back home since the war; they’ve committed to making their community whole again. Women lead Gbeivonwea. They tend to the families’ needs. They fill half of the Community Health Ambassador positions. And they make sure, if you’re stopping in, you get a hot meal, some dancing and time to sit around and chat with them.

“We’ve come through a horrible fire. They know what we’ve come through together and the transformation of that community. They don’t forget how things used to be.”

– Dave Waines, EQUIP Liberia director
gbeivonwea

“Oh, ma, I’m back in Gbeivonwea!” Dave yells as we charge out of the car. Soon, he’s hugging grandmothers, chasing kids and teasing men on front porches. You’d think this was your typical small town, where everyone knows everyone else’s name. Where families have always gotten along, save a few neighborly squabbles.

“But Gbeivonwea was the scene of a massacre, a horrible massacre,” Dave later tells us. “Then, four years after the war, hundreds here died of dysentery because they didn’t have clean water. Gbeivonwea has gone through this incredibly tragic past of losing so many family members.”

He dances with “the ma’s” and smiles abound. “Whenever I come all the way out here, there’s dancing — there’s a reunion,” he says. “We’ve come through a horrible fire. They know what we’ve come through together and the transformation of that community. They don’t forget how things used to be.”

They don’t forget, but they do forgive.

We pile back in the car, but Dave’s in no hurry. He talks to a mother as she washes dishes with soap the way her CHA’s would. He walks outside and pauses to goof around with kids near the house. He speaks with a woman passing by. We wait. Rain starts to fall again and Dave stands in a bright green parka with his hood down, blinking away the raindrops. For once, I can’t hear what he’s saying. But this time, I don’t have to. He’s taking this moment to just be with Gbeivonwea. The healing, the rebuilding, the forgiveness — it starts there.

* * * * *

In four years, we’ve funded water projects in Liberia to bring clean water to over 100,000 people. More than half of these are in Nimba County, in small villages like Gbeivonwea, who use ashes to wash, clean water to stay healthy — and forgiveness to repair what they’ve lost.

– story by Mo Scarpelli
charity: water multimedia producer
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