We live like animals, Pelagie says to me, of herself and her eight children. We don’t bathe or wash our clothes.
To collect water, someone from her family must make the hour-long walk down a narrow path, through coffee plants, lush banana trees, and terraced bean fields to the river.
Once the Jerry cans are filled, they must be carried back up. A full five gallon Jerry can weighs 40 lbs. Two? That’s 80 lbs. carried awkwardly at the sides. And the return trip on this steep incline takes two hours or more. Yet, this family makes the three-hour trek twice every day.
Their water comes at a back-breaking price, so Pelagie doesn’t have room to choose how it’s used. It’s only for drinking and cooking. Yes, it can get hot up here. Yes, they walk long distances and farm during the day. But a bath is a rare privilege this high up. And washing clothes -- that’s an absurd waste of resources.
What I don’t understand is why they stay here. If there’s a river below Nyabuko, why not go live beside it? This question haunts me as I become more familiar with Rwanda. In other countries, we work with communities who simply don’t have enough water. Here, the riverbanks are wide and filled to the top. It would be so easy to set up a home beside them and have water close at hand.
Pelagie, a widow, readily admits she would move if her family had enough money. The plots she cultivates are tiny, enough only to feed them and pay for a few necessities. Accumulation of savings - or anything else, for that matter - is unthinkable. These squares of red dirt are all she has.
Twenty-seven years ago, she was married in this house. Not having seen the inside, I can guess there are, at most, two rooms for her and the eight kids to share.
Perched up here in a little clearing, they have an amazing view of the surrounding hills and the evening’s spectacular sunset. But to Pelagie, I think this panorama looks more like a series of obstacles between her and the end of another day. She can’t think about tomorrow.
* * *
In Kiviri, Bagina actually loves his family’s view. At an hour and a half roundtrip, the water walk for his wife and children is less difficult. Still, he would move if he could afford it. I ask him where to, and he pauses significantly. To the east where land is cheaper, he says, and then admits he doesn’t really want to move.
This land, which has been in his family for three generations, will be split among his four children. Although he hopes they make it to university and earn a living some other way, that doesn’t happen often for kids born in these farming villages. Cultivation is their safety net. If the clean water comes, Bagina says, along with electricity, he’ll have no interest in moving.
It’s true that the government is working hard to extend the infrastructure that could sustain these people and keep them in the homes they know and love. But the fact remains that these services make more sense in some places than in others in this Land of a Thousand Hills. Many settlements will still not be reached by water or electricity.
And in that case, the government is asking people to move. They know that much of their plan to elevate the country’s economic status relies on giving people a better quality of life. And quality of life improves with proximity to reliable resources.
So through construction projects and other incentives, the government is encouraging its people to build more efficient communities. Relocation assistance, offered in special cases, works as an investment in the country’s attempt to cut poverty in half by 2020.
We already know that Nyabuko and Kiviri will reap the benefits of the drive to expand water coverage.
In fact, our September Campaign has everything to do with that. Working alongside our local partner, Water for People, charity: water is fundraising specifically for the two regions where these villages are located - Ngoma and Shyorongi.
These areas - and eventually, all of Rwanda - will have 100% clean water coverage. And, yes, 100% includes Bagina, his wife, and his four children. It includes Pelagie and her eight children. Because of this project, they won’t have to move. Their land will remain theirs.
What’s more, they’ll have a little bit of breathing room. Bagina thinks he could use time not spent collecting water to build bench terraces; begin growing onion, cabbage, and eggplant; and earn extra income through the cultivation of sweet yellow bananas to make the region’s popular juice. Extra income, of course, means he could buy more land for his children.
Pelagie hasn’t yet heard that Nyabuko will be getting a tap stand and that her family will have six hours of their day back, every day. When asked about her children’s future, she falls silent. She doesn’t even know what to hope for them, unless they can somehow escape their poverty through school.
What if they got water? I don’t know, she smiles quietly. We would be born again.
Pelagie and her family walk three hours to collect dirty water from the nearby river. If the 2012 September Campaign is successful, they’ll soon have clean drinking water near their home.