I spent today with Lisette, 41, and mother of six, in her home in rural Boane. This is a day that I will remember.
We greeted Lisette outside her home. She seemed understandably nervous and unsure, and fetched a mat that we sat on with her, and her 1 year old daughter, Marissa, outside on her land. We were in an isolated, quiet area that WaterAid has identified for future support, but where no intervention has taken place yet.
Lisette told us that she wakes at 4am every morning, in order to walk to the ‘river’ to fetch water. I had visited this water source earlier in the day – it is a brown, dirty pond, in which we saw people playing, washing clothes, and cattle drinking. People had scooped out small holes at the edges of the pond, from which to take water, and these contained rubbish and bugs. Seeing this water source at the time, I struggled to process what it really meant, through sheer disbelief. But having met Lisette and her family, I am pained at seeing her as the one making that walk. And her children drinking it.
The round trip to collect water takes Lisette an hour, although it can be double if she takes two trips, which she tries to do. The family needs 40 litres of water each day. Lisette explained that she used to collect water from nearer by, but now there is no more water there, so she has no choice but to walk a long way downhill and then back uphill on the way back. As soon as she started getting water from the river, she said she became sick. Although now she says she is used to it. She spoke quietly and in a subdued manner and told us that collecting the water was very hard as it was very far. Lisette said,
“We know it is dangerous, but we have no choice. We know it is dirty.”
I was talking to an incredibly strong and brave woman. What bravery does it take to welcome complete strangers to your home, and tell them frankly and honestly that you are living in poverty and fighting alone for your children? What deeply saddened me, was that this time there was no optimism; unlike other families I have visited so far. Lisette was doing all she could, but she was telling me that that was not enough. And her children’s quiet lack of joy echoed that.
I asked if we might be able to see inside her home, and Lisette showed us inside her house, kitchen and bathroom. The house was very basic, plastic sheeting covering a frame made from branches, with a metal roof. It was a small dark room in which they slept on the ground. But everything inside was kept in great order and it was clear that Lisette took pride in keeping things in their place. Her two previous husbands had both run away from her and Lisette had done ‘small jobs’ to earn money to buy the plastic sheeting, corrugated metal and her plot of land to build her home for her family. She was very keen to improve her home as it leaks when it rains, and is blown down by strong winds.
My work at the Prince’s Trust taught me not to show shock at people’s disadvantage or situation, but to listen, ask people how they feel and empathise. To stand alongside others and not judge. So entering Lisette’s kitchen, and later helping to cook some food we had brought to thank her, I was enthusiastic and smiled. But I found it very hard. There were days, including today, that she had no food, she told me. The small hut was filled with smoke that choked you and burnt your eyes. Marissa coughed and cried, strapped to her mother’s back. I could not see how people could survive doing this every day. Her poor children Marissa, Lucia, 4, and Samuel, 8, were literally starving.
It was very positive that Lisette had constructed a latrine, and that she spoke of the importance of using a latrine and not going to the toilet out in the open. She wanted to look after her family’s health. I suggested that I could see handwashing might be tricky as I knew she had no soap, but Lisette was defiant – she has water, they can wash their hands. It didn’t feel right to insist that soap was necessary at that point.
In a similar forward-thinking fashion, Lisette had created a system to collect rainwater to use from her roof. Although the complication here was that she perceived the dirty, river water to be safer than the rain water she collected. She cannot be expected to know without proper water, hygiene and sanitation education.
We did smile and we did laugh today, and I am so grateful to Lisette for welcoming us to spend the day with her family. I will treasure the day I spent with her. But a sadness pervaded throughout my time with her family today – their lack of energy, lack of hope, lack of food and lack of safe clean water. Lisette did not deserve that. When I think of her tonight with her family, it breaks my heart and I am worried about their future.
Please visit www.wateraid.org if you would like to consider how you could help to stop families facing life without clean water and safe sanitation.