Photos and story by Scott Harrison.
I jumped back but too late, as coconut juice splashed all over my jeans. The upside-down transfer from coconut to steel cup hadn’t factored in the volume differential.
I sat on a plastic chair in the Engreda village Baptist church, tucked away in the rural hills of Orissa, India. Men and women of the community had gathered here to thank us for funding a piped water system that brought clean and safe drinking water down from a new well in the mountains.
41-year-old Junash was the one that spilled on me, but I didn’t mind, and drank two cups of the warm juice. A few minutes earlier, he’d made a speech about what happened here.
I learned that the 567 residents of Engreda had big problems with water. Their primary source for years had been a polluted stream in the valley beneath the village, which I saw a few moments later.
“In the stream, we would remove a little bit of sand, and the water would ooze out into it. We used to drink that, and the children and adults used to get diarrhea,” Junesh said.
“We are poor. Whatever savings we had, we spent on curing our waterborne diseases. The poor remained poor.”
Through last year’s partnership with retailer Saks Fifth Avenue, more than $540,000 was raised – enough for 100 water projects in Honduras, India and Ethiopia.
Engreda was one of those projects, but the water running from their taps came at a higher price than our funding.
The people had petitioned our implementing partner Gram Vikas to help them with the water problem. But before bringing clean water to Engreda, Gram Vikas asked villagers to give a year of their time to construct toilets and bathing rooms on faith.
For over 30 years, Gram Vikas has taken a unique approach to development work. For them, sanitation is the key to good health, and community participation is the key to sustainability. “Sanitation” meant toilets and showers here; "participation" - a year plus of hard work.
Junash said Gram Vikas’s proposal was initially met with some resistance, as each of Engreda’s 130 families would have to do a “lot of work” that would cost “a lot of money.”
For Gram Vikas to work in a community, 100% of the people must agree and contribute, and after a short time, they did.
But their involvement didn’t stop there.
After all 130 toilets and bathing rooms were constructed, community members then helped lay pipe from the well Gram Vikas constructed high in the mountain near a spring. It was tough going. Villagers spent more than a month breaking stones in the rocky ground, but beamed with pride at their achievement.
I sometimes hear people accuse those in the developing world of laziness. But the more I travel, the more I find that’s just not true. Communities like Engreda give what they have, even if it’s not the cold cash that comes easier for many of us.
Written on the wall next to our contribution was theirs, and while not in the form of a check, its value far exceeded ours.
The stone, bricks, gravel and labor the people of Engreda added to the project came to $19,851. At least half of that was sweat equity and calculated at the going rate of 17 cents an hour. For comparison, if their labor took place in the United States, where hourly minimum wage is $6.55, they’d have contributed more than $364,000 of labor value - 58,345 hours.
In that light, charity: water’s $7,822 contribution for the hard costs of piping, taps and the water tower was a steal.
Back at the Gram Vikas compound later that evening, the project coordinator smiled when she learned I’d visited Engreda.
“Yes, they’re very happy there. They tell us the water tastes better than coconut milk.”
I had to agree.
- Scott Harrison