These Ethiopian families used to spend up to six hours a day to fetch dirty water that made their kids sick. But thanks to the help of U.S. Catholics, easier access to clean water has changed their lives in far-reaching ways. Here’s their story, and what you can do with your kids to practice solidarity with people halfway around the world.
by Brian Singer-Towns
Last May, I had the great blessing of traveling with a group of men and women involved in youth ministry to witness firsthand the work of Catholic Relief Services in Ethiopia. My family has been a longtime supporter of CRS, the overseas aid agency of U.S. Catholics, and this was an opportunity to see how our donations have been making a difference. I can assure you that they are being put to very good use, indeed. Here is just one of the many examples I saw in my eight days there.
Bringing Clean Water to 10,000 Ethiopians
This particular project was a community water project, just completed a few months before our visit. The project brought fresh water to 10,000 Ethiopian men, women and children for the first time in their lives. Our first stop was at a “water point,” one of four water distribution locations. Eight or 10 faucets set into a concrete platform allowed people the opportunity to fill their five-gallon water jugs with fresh well water daily. The four water points were strategically located so no family had to walk more than a half hour (one way) to fill their jugs. This still sounded like an inconvenience until we learned that many families had previously spent four to six hours a day traveling for their water!
From there we traveled through the bush and down a small mountain (by necessity, all our travel was in Land Rovers) to the actual well site. There we saw the large diesel engine that pumped the water from deep underground to a reservoir on the mountaintop. We listened as the local people explained how they had dug the trenches the water pipe was laid in, and how they were trained to run and maintain the engine provided as part of the project. Like so many of the projects we witnessed, this was no handout, it was a hand up. From the very beginning the project was identified, planned and executed with and by the people it would serve.
“Our Whole Life Has Changed”
Our last stop was at the water reservoir itself. We were greeted by several hundred people who were singing and dancing in joy at our arrival; a very humbling experience, but we gladly joined the festivities. We heard the most remarkable stories told by two elders, a man and a woman. The man told us how hard it was for their families to find wives for their sons. No family wanted their daughters married to people in an area where getting water (typically women’s work) was so physically taxing. Fortunately, the new well was changing their reputation!
Then the woman spoke. “I have been reborn!” she proclaimed as she jumped to express her joy. She told us of how she used to walk six hours every day to get dirty water from the same ponds and streams that animals drank from and defecated in. The walk left her tired and aching, and then she still had to fix meals and care for her children. Even worse, the water often made her children very sick. Her older daughters missed school because they had to stay home to watch the younger children while she was away.
But now she only has to walk one hour for good, clean water. She feels younger than she has in many years. Her children are healthy and energetic. Her daughters can finish their education and have plans for future careers. She concluded, “Our whole life has changed, and we thank you for giving us a more hopeful future.”
Her words struck me very powerfully. Who would have thought that such a simple thing as clean water could have such an impact on people’s lives? I always had donated to CRS as part of my commitment to helping people who are less fortunate. At that moment, I realized it was so much more than that. Our donations put us in direct solidarity with people on the other side of the world. We are supporting real people, with real needs, and their own personal stories. And those people think of us and remember us in their prayers with gratitude.
Ways Your Kids Can Connect with African Families (Without Leaving Home)
In keeping with the Church’s commitment to live in solidarity with the poor, here are resources to help your family learn about, pray, reflect and act.
- Learn more about community water projects in Ethiopia here. CRS has been working to provide relief and aid to Ethiopia for 50 years!
- CRS works around the world to help communities recover from man-made and natural disasters. Read “Drop by Drop” by U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, illustrated by Carrie Gowran, with your young children about a CRS water project in Burkina Faso, a country in West Africa. The story is about Sylvie, a girl from Burkina Faso, who is eager to go to school but cannot because she is tasked with the daily chore of fetching water for her family. But with the help of CRS, a well is drilled in her community, dramatically changing her life. Here are printable resources to accompany your reading. The resources also are appropriate to use with the companion book “Green Street Park” in which a group of young students work together to clean up their neighborhood park.
- Access this great resource for family catechesis about the dignity of the human person. The one-hour module includes a prayer, activity and focuses on human dignity through access to clean drinking water.
- Watch how faith in action leads to results, and learn about the 75-year history of CRS by watching this video.
- Participate in a Helping Hands event. During the event “volunteers come together to learn about the people of Burkina Faso and the hunger they face, to reflect on our Catholic call to address hunger and to have fun packaging thousands of meals that will help save lives,” according to the website.
- Participate in the CRS Rice Bowl.
As U.S. Catholics we can be very proud of the work of CRS. Not only are they the largest nongovernmental relief organization in the world, they are one of the most efficient and accountable relief organizations. Ninety-four cents of every dollar your family puts in the Rice Bowl this Lent will help families around the world with food, education, health care, job training, and so much more. And the work of CRS is multiplied by the many partnerships they enter into with local, national and international organizations.
Editor’s note: Gracewatch Media and Peanut Butter & Grace follow the direction of the U.S. Catholic bishops in their statement fully backing the work of Catholic Relief Services: “The statement confirms CRS’ fidelity to Church teaching and cautions the faithful about giving credence to recent attacks on the agency.” You can read the news release and the full statement here.
Brian Singer-Towns, MThS, joined the editorial staff of Saint Mary’s Press after more than 15 years in volunteer and professional youth ministry. He is senior editor at the Press, and general editor of the Saint Mary’s Press Bible line.