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Where We Work

Stories from the Ground: Ethiopia

The Miracle of Water in Dame Village, Ethiopia

By Leslie Moreland, Program Officer

The rain continues to fall, flooding the newly paved road as my colleague and I leave behind Addis Ababa. I know that there is a small chance we may not be able to visit some WaterCan-funded projects outside Ethiopia’s capital due to the flooding of the access roads, or, more accurately, the farmers’ fields we cross to reach schools and communities.

We’re on our way to the field office of our African partner, Oromo Self Reliance Association (OSRA), two hours away. The drive is always an experience. Women walk along the road, carrying heavy loads of eucalyptus branches for firewood, their brightly coloured scarves trailing behind them in the wind. Men herd their cows, goats and donkeys along the road to the nearest market, protecting them from SUVs and speeding overloaded trucks.

WaterCan's Program Officer, Leslie, with Jitu.

Our white truck is mud-spattered as we pull in, eager to meet Jitu, who is waiting for us in the dimly lit office. Though we can’t understand each other’s language, her calm presence, warm smile and handshake surpass words. Her hands are rough from many hours working her land in the hot Ethiopian sun to provide for her family. The wrinkles on her face make her appear older than her 38 years, yet her eyes have a youthful spark. She gestures for me to sit, and we sip coffee while my colleague, Getu Alemu Hunde makes introductions. 

The disturbing story she tells me is like the stories told by millions of other African women. Speaking softly in Oromo, the dominant language in the region, she describes the day her daughter was born.

“One day during my pregnancy with my fifth child, my daughter, I was cleaning and re-plastering our floor with a mixture of cow dung and water. To complete the floor I had to go and collect more water at the river, but the river and nearby hand-dug wells were dry.

The well and handpump in Dame Village provide much needed safe drinking water to the surrounding community.

“I had no other choice but to return home. As I entered the house, my water broke and I went into labour. Luckily my husband noted that we had no water and went to the village to try to find some. But on the way, he was attacked and bitten by a stray dog. However, he managed to get water from a neighbour but it was incredibly dirty and we didn’t want to use it to wash our new baby girl.

“As I had given birth in the evening, we didn’t clean my new baby daughter or the floor, where I had given birth, until the next day. I also couldn’t clean myself and I remember being very, very thirsty.”

I cannot help but think of the wonderful maternity facilities in Canada. Where does a woman like Jitu find the strength to give birth in such difficult circumstances, knowing that she will remain dirty and parched for hours to come, and knowing that she may die during pregnancy or childbirth. (She faces a one-in-16 chance).

She, too, was thinking of hardship: “Before, when our village didn’t have water, I would ask God ‘why?’ But I also knew that this was our reality. Yet this didn’t change the fact that I still felt sad and sorry because we didn’t have water.”

Students at Keta Insilale Primary School washing their hands. It's a simple action that could save their lives.

She tells her story first, then formally introduces herself as Mrs. Jitu Dadi, mother of six — two boys and four girls. Yet like many other women of her age in Ethiopia, she also takes care of five other children from her husband’s first wife. (Two of these children live with her, the other three are married and have moved away).

Jitu and her family live in Keta Insilale Kebele in Dame Village. The nearest town is Tulubolo, where we are today for our meeting. She is a widow. Her husband died two years ago, making her the sole caretaker of her family. She lives with three of her children, the others have married and live elsewhere. Two of her children are still quite young and attend Keta Insilale Primary School, less than a kilometer from her house. Earlier this year, the school received a well and sanitation facility from a project supported by WaterCan, and she noted a great change at the school where her children are learning to care for the new garden. And they now go to the washroom in privacy and wash their hands at the newly installed hand-washing facilities.

I say that being the sole caretaker of such a large family must be difficult, and ask what she does for a living. She answers me with a motion — it looks as if she is stirring something. She is showing how she harvests teff (used to make the local bread injera). Along with teff, she also harvests chickpeas on the 2.5 hectares (6.1 acres) of land that she owns. To complement her formal farming activities, she makes and sells local brew to the members of the village and nearby town. I think that between farming, looking after her children, and undertaking other household chores, she would have very little time for much else. Yet she continues to surprise me.

The borehole at Keta Insilale Primary during construction.

Jitu is also a member of the Water and Sanitation Committee for Deme Village in Keta Insilale Kebele. She is the only female member of the seven-member committee. In 2008, WaterCan and OSRA supported development of a well for the 57 households in Deme village.

Jitu says the well and access to clean, safe water has made a big change for her family and her neighbours. “Before the well, the women and children would collect water from a river located three kilometers from the village. During the rainy season, the journey to collect this water would take an average of two hours each way.” Jitu tells me she would make this trek at least two times a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. “Each time I would collect about 20 litres of water in my clay pot that I carried on my back secured by a cloth. Sometimes my daughters would also accompany me, each with her own 10-litre jerry can.”

Although it is hard to imagine it, with the rain falling so heavily outside, I ask her about collecting water in the dry season.

“During the dry season other women and I would collect water from hand-dug wells we would dig beside the river, still a three-kilometre walk each way. Collecting water presented many risks. The hand-dug wells would often collapse. With the hard soil, they were also very difficult to dig in the first place. The queues could be quite long and there were dangers along the way.

“Sometimes, when we would walk the three kilometres along the path to collect water, boys would come and bother us. One day, as we were walking along the path, my friend’s clay pot (for collecting water) broke and she was suddenly grabbed by a young boy. We heard her crying and shouting. Some of us who were waiting in the queue went to see what was happening and to try to help her.

“However, in Oromia it is not uncommon for this to take place. If you are poor and can’t afford a dowry, a young man or boy can abduct you and force you to marry him. This is what happened to my friend. Now she has three children with this man. That day a quarrel also broke out because those of us who went to try to help her lost our spot in the queue for water.”

Students at Keta Insilale Primary attend school more regularily since the implementation of a borehole well.

Jitu takes a sip of her coffee, and asks if we can change subjects and talk about the present, how things have changed for the better — not only for her but for Deme Village and the surrounding area. I sense that she has just shared a painful memory. I am shocked by the revelation of this type of forced marriage and abduction, and see how access to clean, safe water really can create change well beyond health improvements. In this case, it gives safety to the young girls and women of this village. 

Jitu says before the village had clean water, children and the elderly were often sick and went to the clinic to get treated, most often for amoebae, worms and diarrhea.

“Before we promoted the construction of household latrines in our village, people practiced open defecation in the surrounding bush. Some people did have latrines at their homes, but for those that didn’t this is how we relieved ourselves.

“The small children would defecate around the house and then someone would clean it up. The elders and women would go to defecate in the bush. Even though it was risky, we had no alternative,” she says. “Only after OSRA’s training did I construct a latrine. Now there is no more open defecation because we learned about the importance of using a latrine.

“After OSRA’s training, we made an agreement with the water users and community that if someone practices open defecation, he or she will be punished, will be refused access to the water point.”

How does she feel about having access to the community well, and to a clean, safe water source? She looks at me and sits silently for a few minutes, eyes watering.

“There are no words to reflect my happiness,” she finally answers. “Justice has come and lifted us from the situation we were in. We all feel reborn. I feel sorry for our elders who passed away and never got to know this better scenario. We can now wash our clothes in our village rather than walk to the river or carry the water home. We take better care of ourselves, including showering regularly. We have less skin diseases and don’t have to go to the clinics very often anymore, which saves us time and money.”

“Our community is happy,” she says. Her last words, in particular, strike a chord: “We manage water as if it were one of our children, because we never want to return to the previous situation and lose what we have now.” The analogy of treating water like she would treat her own precious child is touching. Jitu knows, like millions of others around the world, how precious water is, and how access to this resource can’t be taken for granted.

The conversation is over: She must go and pick up the children she brought with her into town and make her way on the bus to Addis Ababa for business. I stand up and we walk outside together. We pose for a few photos, and I realize we are of similar stature. I show her the photo of the two of us, her bright red head scarf and soft white shawl offer a stark contrast to her brown skin and dark, determined eyes.

She smiles, and we are alone for a few moments while my colleagues gather materials from the office. I’m not quite sure how to thank this woman for giving me some of her valuable time, but more importantly for sharing her personal stories with me. We hug, and say goodbye. Again, I tell her that her story will be shared with hundreds of Canadians, that her experiences represent the lives of millions of other women across this great continent, and the world. I promise to keep a copy for her so that she, too, can see the impact of her time with me today.

How can I thank Jitu for sharing something so personal, so touching, so meaningful, without asking for anything in return? With the assistance of organizations such as OSRA, the support of WaterCan, and the commitment from local government and community members, families and women like Jitu have the chance of a better life, of safety, security and — what everyone deserves — dignity.

On our ride back to Addis Ababa, sun is shining. All I can think of is how the work we support truly makes a difference, one drop at a time.

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