Today was our final day in the field visiting local villages on this study tour. The feeling was bittersweet as we packed up the trucks and headed into the rural communities one last time.
Our morning began in the unserved village in Belavabary, called Tsarafangitra (I dare you to try to pronounce that one!) which will have access to clean water beginning 2017. Currently, they have zero access to clean water or sanitation of any kind.. I knew I was in for an emotional day.
We broke into small groups, and Nadine and I met a local mother named Veronique and her adorable baby boy. Her house was definitely the most difficult one to see during this trip.
Where my curious heart had found intrigue previously, it was now aching for this woman and her family. Four people sleep in one decrepit room that contains only one twin bed, a desk, and a shelf, scattered haphazardly with the family’s modest belongings. Sunlight soaked lazily through the open window, illuminating Veronique as she spoke to us, one breast out so she could feed her baby. Her hair was pulled into two buns, her eyes avoided direct contact with ours, and she spoke softly.
We learned that she is 24, a mother of two, and is from a village about an hour away from where she lives now. She loved exploring when she was little, and that’s how she met her husband. Now she lives in his village, and walks back to her former home a few times per month to see her parents. She hopes to someday have four children. Her husband works as a farmer, while she tends to her children, cooks and cleans, harvests from their modest garden and fetches three 44 pound jugs of water at a filthy watering hole every single day.
Veronique takes us behind her house to harvest cassava, a starchy root vegetable that looks kind of like a potato. With five or six strong strokes of her shovel, she wrenches a large bundle cassava from the dusty earth. Then, it’s our turn. We struggle and curse and prod at the dirt for what feels like half an hour before we manage to unearth our pathetic, battered vegetables. Veronique laughs as she watches us, and it’s the first light I have seen in her eyes since we arrived.
After we helped peel the cassava (another struggle that has us feeling like the opposite of ‘wifey material’) we prepared for our walk to fetch water. Veronique handed me an old 22L jerry can with a leaky lid, which would serve as the vessel for the water she would use to drink, cook, clean and care for her family. With the rest of our group, we walked about a kilometre to the water source.
The walk begins down a dusty road, along a winding path, and then down a 60 or so degree embankment to the water. Three Malagasy women are in front of me, scaling the rocky hill in their bare feet twice as fast as I am in my hiking boots. One is an older woman, probably in her 60s, one is about the same age as Veronique, and one is in a tattered and stained night gown, 7 months pregnant. She helps me fill my jug with the murky water as I finally break down into tears at the realization of their everyday reality.
The walk back to the houses with the 44 pounds of water rivals any challenge I’ve ever faced. Rami and Ernest take turns helping me hoist the leaky jerry can onto my head. It hurts. With every step, the water sloshes back and forth, and threatens to knock me off balance, down the steep rocks below me. My head throbs and my neck aches. My arms protest after about 5 minutes of supporting the water above my head. I am covered in dirty water as it leaks through four different points in the ancient jug, and I become angry that it’s being wasted. In frustration, I slam my jug down on the ground, and attempt to carry it a few different ways before realizing that, while painful, on my head is the most efficient way.
By the time we finally reach Veronique’s house, I am shaking, sweating, cursing and angry. It’s not so much the sheer exertion of the task that has broken me, but the weight of the entire situation. Pregnant women and children as young as six making that trek every single day, three times a day, for dirty, contaminated, debris-filled, disease-carrying water infuriated me.
I was silent for a few hours after that, as we ate a picnic lunch on our way to the next village. The only thing that brought me comfort was the knowledge that soon, because of WaterAid’s work, Veronique and all of the people in this village would have access to clean, safe water.
In the afternoon, we visited a health centre in Belavabary which is a recently completed project by WaterAid. Luckily, this was an extremely uplifting experience compared to our morning. We spent some time in the health centre, gave donations of hospital supplies to the nurses, and got to see the newly built latrines. We helped finalize the construction of a new water tap in the village, and then…you guessed it…there was dancing.
We said goodbye and made the journey back to Moramanga in silent reflection. I felt a lot of mixed emotions about the fact that our time in the field had come to an end. I was excited for the next part of our trip, but what I had seen had deeply affected me. But all of the sadness I felt slowly began to fade as our group drank celebratory beers, sang karaoke, and danced the night away with our Malagasy friends. We finally called it a night at about 2am, our 6am departure time quickly approaching.