A smile cracks Gratien's cheeks. He tells our translator he's heard it before. They've all heard it. Many times. Clean water is coming to our village... In the early 90s, in 2000, next year.
We're standing on the spine of a hill that rises from a lush river valley below, and the sun is slanting hard toward the horizon on our right. Gratien's been walking for a long time so he doesn't mind stopping for a photo. But when we tell him why we're really here - to capture his village's story and then bring clean water - he just laughs.
We want to prove it somehow, that this time it's real. My colleague pulls out a black charity: water wristband. This is our organization and water is what we do. We are here, in this very spot, because it is going to happen. Gratien is reluctant to wear the wristband, tells us they're for kids, but politely slides it on his bony wrist and leaves it there. I snap a couple photos, we pile him in our vehicle and head up the hill toward his village, Nyabuko. He's grateful for the lift, even if he does think we're crazy.
When we get to his house, he tells us he was coming from having a beer in another village. Our translator asks conspiratorially if he has beer to share with us, and Gratien replies: I don't even have water, how could I have beer here? Then he walks a few paces toward a cliff and gestures at the river hidden somewhere deep below. It's at least a 40-minute walk to the water down a steep incline.
Even further up the hill from Gratien's house, we meet a family that walks over three hours round trip for water, twice a day. The task is so overwhelming, they use what they collect only for drinking and cooking. They bathe and do laundry infrequently. Everyone around them is in the same impossible situation, but this is just where their land is. This is where their crops are, the only way they make a living.
Later, on the flight back to the States, I look down at my wrist. I've never been in love with my work enough to wear it on my sleeve, but I've been wearing a charity: water wristband since I began this job a week before our trip. I wonder if Gratien is still wearing his. I wonder if he's already forgotten that we said we'd bring him water. The wristband, I realize now, reminds me of our promise.
This month, our team will return to the hill villages of Rwanda. Working with our local partner, Water for People, we'll begin the audacious task of getting clean water to each community in the Rulindo District, starting with two sectors - Shyorongi and Ngoma, where Gratien lives.
There's a reason these people have been disappointed before. The need is universal, the terrain is an infrastructure headache, and past efforts have simply failed to focus long or hard enough to make a difference.
But now the government has made clean water a top priority. Local officials, communities, and Water for People have collaborated on plans for realistic, sustainable development. charity: water and all of our September Campaign supporters are going to provide the funding needed to get clean water flowing -- this time, for everyone. Even the residents of tiny hilltop Nyabuko. Even Gratien.
I hope he is still wearing his wristband. I'm still wearing mine. And I'm going to keep my promise.