Water is Life

Joseph Ekow, then 5, catches the final trickle of water after filling his bucket at a well behind John Kofi Asmah United Methodist Church in the West Point neighborhood in Monrovia, Liberia, in 2017. Many families in this dense, urban area lack access to pipe water. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.

Photography by Mike DuBose, story by Kathy L. Gilbert –

“Water is life,” the women sing. At 4:30 a.m., it is pitch black in the village of Mzira in Malawi – a nation wedged between Zambia, Mozambique, and Tanzania. In the early morning sky, the Southern Cross and the Big Dipper look bright enough to walk on. Dogs howl and scurrying animals rustle through the maize fields. Women gather under the shadows of trees, buckets swinging, ready to embark on the first of many journeys they will make during the day to fetch water for their families.

As they gather, they chat, laugh, and count heads. Making their way through maize fields, creek and riverbeds, over slick rocks, and through other rough terrain, the women sing to encourage each other and to scare away anything or anyone that might be lurking in the dark – including “bad men who may be rapists.”

“Water is life, let us go and draw water, water is life, our children should go to school,” the women sing. The colorful plastic buckets most of them carry hold 5 gallons of water. The weight of water is 8.3 pounds per gallon. Light as air at the beginning of the journey, the filled buckets become heavy burdens balanced on their heads for the trip home. The singing and dancing never stops.

The precious water will be used to make porridge, wash dishes and clothes, and bathe children before they go off to school. Not a single drop is wasted. The used dishwater and bathwater is collected; some goes to the chickens and other animals. Some goes to the small kitchen garden. The water they scoop up comes from an “unprotected” well, explains Mercy Chikhosi. It looks like a big muddy hole. The women let the water settle in their containers so it looks clear when they dip a cup into it, but it is still dirty, unsafe water.

Chikhosi, a graduate of United Methodist Africa University in Zimbabwe with a degree in nursing, first came to this district in 2011 as a community health coordinator with Malawi United Methodist Church. She now works full time with Wandikweza, an organization she founded to support best practices in health care, developing sustainable communities, and empowering girls and women.

Search for water. Millions of people spend almost every moment of their lives seeking water. Millions more do not give it a second thought. Which category you are in depends a great deal on where you were born. According to the World Health Organization, people need 50 liters of water a day to keep health risks low. More than 800 children under 5 die every day from diarrhea diseases due to poor sanitation, poor hygiene, or unsafe drinking water.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief and its parent agency, the Board of Global Ministries, support water and sanitation projects worldwide. Projects include piping water into homes, providing tube wells, boreholes or rainwater storage systems, digging wells, installing flush toilets and septic tanks, and improving pit latrines and sanitary facilities.

Global Ministries reports that more than 750 million people around the world do not have reliable water access and even fewer have access to water for agriculture and household tasks. More than 2.4 billion people lack sanitation facilities. Every dollar spent on water, sanitation, and hygiene generates U.S. $4.30 in increased productivity and decreased health care costs. The United Nations reports a quarter of the major cities in the world face a water crisis.

Pastor Manuel Machavele leads a procession of church and community members following the dedication of a new water well in Lameque Mbulo village near Homoine, Mozambique. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.

Missouri, Mozambique connection. Many United Methodist conferences, such as the Missouri Conference through the Mozambique Initiative, established in 1988, contribute funds and volunteers to drill water wells. 

In 2019, 41 wells were completed through the initiative. The average per-person cost for a well in 2019 was $2.04. According to the local communities, these wells brought safe, clean water to 124,140 people.

The Missouri Conference reported that in 2019, a teenager set aside spare money throughout the year and donated $245 in December. Her individual effort provided clean water for 120 people.

Good drillers. Isidro Cumaio starts his story by saying, “It is difficult to find a good driller.” Cumaio, who founded his drilling company in 2014 with the support of his sons, has three good drillers in Adelino Cumbane, José Chambe, and José Conjo. Cumaio is a United Methodist and his faith is at the core of his inspiration and work.

“There are places where women spend the entire day walking to a water source,” he said. Sometimes the women construct a small shelter by the water source and spend the night there after walking all day, he explains. “They get up the next day and walk home to prepare meals and then go to fetch water again,” he said. “Women go fetch water with 20-liter containers. They won’t get home with a full container because they get thirsty, or they spill some of the water on the way back.”

Children and pregnant women have to help retrieve water and do household chores or work in the fields. If children can go to school, they have to bring water to their teachers. “Do you understand how their lives will change if they get clean, safe water in their villages? They see the drillers coming and they follow, running and celebrating. There is hope.”

Cumaio knows from personal experience how hard it is to have to fetch water and carry the heavy containers back home: He was 9 years old when he started having to walk 10 kilometers round trip to get water. “I had to fetch water before I went to school. I had to get up at 5 a.m.; school started at 6:30. It was a dream of mine to someday find a solution.” Cumaio started working for an Italian drilling company when he was 18. He worked hard and earned a scholarship to go to Italy to learn to become a driller. He has 27 people on his staff and three drilling rigs.

Felizarda Alexandre draws water from a shallow, open well in the bush outside Homoine, Mozambique. She is a member of Pembe United Methodist Church. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.

Every drop is precious. Driving from the nearest town of Homoine, it takes about two hours to get to Mudembelane once the vehicle turns off the paved road and plunges into the deep, sandy path. Huge cashew trees, monkey fruit trees, scraggly thorny bushes, and cacti line the curving drive. Driving back at night, the landscape looks like a sandy beach in the moonlight. Along the way is the Domo River, the only natural water source in this area.

Phembe United Methodist Church sits back from a freshly cleared lot where the new well will be drilled. The church is a small structure, half-covered by zinc sheets. The congregation raised the money to buy the few sheets by making and selling charcoal. The few rows of pews are tree limbs supported by hand-cut, large V’s pounded into the ground. Three walls made from branches are woven together with strips of bark. The back opens up to a space where villagers bring in plastic chairs for Sunday service.

The branches of a large cashew tree form the ceiling for an open kitchen. Chickens run around pecking for food just minutes before they become the food themselves. Women are mashing large pots of coconuts into pulp, stirring pots, washing dishes. Elder men sit in a circle in the shade.

Not far from the kitchen is an open well. The women go back and forth fetching water for cooking. This well is not stable and the water is unsafe. Men have died when the walls collapse while they dig these types of wells.

The Isidro Drilling Company is drilling a new well, financed by the Mozambique Initiative. It is the answer to many nights and days of praying and suffering. The mood is festive as the drillers arrive and pitch their tents. The drillers will live in the village until they strike water.

“It is a good morning for work to begin,” said the Rev. Pedro Marime. He spoke of John 4:5 and the Samaritan woman at the well. “We know the water we are drinking now is not safe. Jesus has presented us with this gift: water that will feed all of this community. God loves us so much to come to this place,” he said. Once work begins, the elders move their chairs to shady spots near the drilling area to watch and wait.

Hercilio Cumaio, 31, the eldest son of Isidro, who owns the drilling company, is here to supervise. Inside the church after the midday meal is served, he talks about his job. “A well is an overwhelming transformation. There is a lot of need out there,” he said, pointing beyond the door of the church. Surveys are done before the well site is chosen, but not every site produces water, he said. It takes days of drilling and there are many stumbling blocks to overcome.

“They see us as saviors and it is heavy to tell them we have failed,” Cumaio said. “We try at least three sites, then we have to ask the Mozambique Initiative for another location.” On the third day, this site is successful. The drill reached water at about 40 meters.

Water came to Mudembelane in the dark, cold night of October 1. Small fires were burning all around the drilling site in an effort to keep people warm and fight back the night. The drillers compress air into the pipes to force the water out. As the water started spraying, the women came singing. Rounding the corner, the firelight caught the joy on their faces. Their singing almost drowns out the shrill grinding of the compressor as the workers flushed the well to get the water clean and ready for use. 

The dedication of the well came a few days later and more than 300 people gathered to celebrate and thank God for the water. The Rev. Hortência Americo Langa Bacela, Mozambique South Conference director of connectional ministries, came to bring greetings from the bishop. Pastors, lay leaders, tribal leaders, and the grateful villagers made speeches. People danced and sang. The elders of the village and children were given sips of the fresh water. “We will live extra time because of this water,” said one elder. “We will live extra time to praise the Lord.”

Hortência Joaquim carries her empty bucket on the way to fetch water for her family from the Domo River outside Lameque Mbulo village near Homoine, Mozambique. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.

Driven by need. The weight of the water bucket cruelly constricts her neck, shoving her head down into her shoulders. The skin on her dark face shakes with the effort to stand up. Each step she takes pounds her bare feet into the earth, sending up puffs of ghostly dust. The bucket on her head holds 20 liters of water, about 44 pounds. The jug she also carries holds another 20 liters. Like the other women in her village, she is driven by the constant need for water.

Lameque Mbulo is a small village near Homoine, Mozambique. The walk to the Domo River takes about an hour. They dip their containers into the same water that cattle and other animals drink from, walk through, defecate in. Most children start to help fetch water around 9 years of age. The job usually goes to the girls. “You can’t get used to this, but we have no other way,” said Hortência Joaquim on the walk to the river.

“We go twice a day. It is tedious, but this is where we are, where we are living, and this need for water is why we have to walk,” agreed Maria Pedro Matsimbe. “I am very excited. I am missing words to express the joy and thanks to have water nearby,” Matsimbe said, watching the drillers prepare their work.

A school for first to seventh grades is on a dusty path beaten down between tall weeds by little feet. Sumburane Eugenio Mindo, a teacher at the school, talks about how much time the children miss because they are sick from drinking contaminated water. Each student is asked to bring 5 liters of water with them; 2 liters of water are kept in the administration building for teachers, he explains. There is a cistern on the school grounds, but it is cracked and hasn’t functioned for a long time. He imagines fresh, safe water in the village. Children will be able to stay in school. Women will not have to worry about so much sickness and death for their babies from drinking contaminated water.

The need for water has been a problem here for generations. Even though the villagers are grateful to have the well drilled here, they worry about all those who will still go without.

When the drill finds the deep vein of water, compressed air forces the water out of the pipes in a translucent burst. Excitement bubbles over for onlookers. Even though the drillers warn not to drink the water yet because it takes time to flush the chemicals out, it is too much for one young mother to resist. The water looks so perfect.

She fills her container and runs back into the huddle of women in the open-air kitchen. Her eyes sparkle as brightly as the water. She takes a cup and offers it to an older woman whose baby is strapped to her back. Before taking a sip herself, the older woman swings the baby around and pours water into her tiny mouth. The baby smiles, then the woman takes a sip and she smiles. Hope shines in their eyes – maybe this child will grow up with safe water. Maybe this child will be able to go to school instead of walking miles to carry water home.

This gift of life-giving water will change many lives.

Kathy Gilbert is a news writer and Mike DuBose a photographer for UM News. Joey Butler, a UM News multimedia editor, contributed to this story. Unless otherwise noted, the photography and reporting for this story were completed during trips to Malawi, Liberia and Zimbabwe in 2017, Côte d’Ivoire in 2018 and Mozambique in 2019. The entire photo essay can be found at https://spark.adobe.com/page/9JXwdq3ZKUekX/

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