I live near water. We luxuriate in the beauty of this great lake that surrounds us. We swim and boat and walk its shorelines, we skip pebbles and wade in the waves on sandy beaches. Even now, in the winter when we are not delighting in the blue beauty, we talk of “lake effect snow” and gaze at the ice-shoves and crystals that shine in the winter sun. We sometimes complain of the pervasive dampness, the humidity that persists in each season. Water in every way affects our lives.
In contrast, I have been reminiscing this week about a place where water was sparse. Northern Uganda had fertile soil and plenty of rain, but that did not translate into enough water for everyday living. In the house where we American teachers stayed, there was running water most of the time, but we needed to conserve. This meant hair washing every third or fourth day, showers (cold) every other day and only for a minute or two.
But for most Ugandans, water needed to be carried. One teacher friend lined up at the well each morning about ½ mile away from her house to carry home her 5 gallons before school. Most days this would be barely enough to wash and drink and cook and clean. Every other Saturday she would wash clothes, and she dreaded it- the long walk twice or even three times in a day- the heavy hauling, the time.
We can hardly imagine it- every drop precious because every drop means hard work, means time spent. No faucets flowing freely to wash hands, wash dishes, wash hair, wash sheets or towels. No sprinklers for our lawns, no hoses to water our tomatoes or wash our cars. The high school where I taught had one working well in a far-off corner of the campus. That’s six hundred kids who not only learned at the school but also lived in dorms on the property with no drinking fountain, no water for toilets, no working faucets in their science labs or their cafeteria or kitchen. There were no showers. To wash themselves, the students took sponge baths from small plastic washtubs. They got used to being thirsty.
The thing I most remember feeling in Gulu was dusty. There was dust in my shoes, the grit rubbing blisters between my toes. Dust under the straps of my backpack. Dust on my schoolbooks. Dust in my eyebrows. There was never enough water to wash it away.
Shortly before we left after spending a summer in Gulu, we invited all our Ugandan teacher-partners and their families to a celebration. We planned to play games, eat food; there would be dancing. One of our program leaders schemed a special treat for the kids: he first borrowed tarps from the World Food Program (which was literally keeping people alive with twice weekly distributions of rice.) Then, with buckets and a gerry-rigged hose, he let water flow freely down those tarps in a make-shift “slip ‘n slide” for the children.
Shy at first, the children held back. And then, one child ran, slid on the slippery tarp, laughed, came back for another run. And then another, and another, until all of them were running, sliding, drenched with water and dripping in the sun. There was laughter and shrieking, giggling and glee.
I suppose some might think that poured-out water was a frivolous waste. But every single person I met in Northern Uganda had seen atrocities of war, suffered the sadness of loss or the guilt of surviving it. The weight of that war was heavy on the adults, and their children felt it, too. If an instant can traumatize a person, can one instant heal? For these beautiful children whose life was regularly one of parched landscape, thirst, and sorrow, I am glad that we gave them this glorious gift of a slide in a river of water, temporary though it was.
I have loved traveling, but one problem is this: it painfully illuminates the inequalities of our human experiences. I live in a country of swimming pools and flowing fountains and beaches while other people I have known trudge through their lives without luxury in a dusty and parched land. In Northern Uganda for a time, there were years of slaughter in the middle of the night: machetes, abductions, horror. I have never feared such a war in my own backyard.
Such questions lead me two places in my Christian faith: 1) to want to work against injustice and 2) to believe, sometimes waveringly, in the promises of God that say He will bring about justice on this earth.
Regarding the first, there are all kinds of sorrows on the earth, and all kinds of ways to work to alleviate them. In a hundred ways we can make differences. If you, like me, think about water, you might investigate these three organizations.
- water.org See this moving video about Ethiopia
- A former student of mine has done some work with an organization called Engineers without Borders, so I’m pretty partial to this one, too. https://www.ewb-usa.org/
Regarding the latter, the place of faith that helps me answer deep questions, I take some comfort in these words from the last book of the Bible.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal… on either side of the river, the tree of life….and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. (Revelations 22:2)
The inequities on this earth are too big and the contrasts are too enormous for me to understand or fix. We can play a little part in addressing them, but all that we do will not be enough. God, however, says He will make things right in the end. He will inexplicably make this earth into heaven. And thankfully, in that place there will be water — apparently clear and clean and plentiful enough for everyone.