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Africa Liberia


Women and Water
By:  Terra Pressler

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Quick Facts:  Liberia  is a country on the west coast of Africa, bordered by Sierra Leone, Guinea, Côte d'Ivoire, and the Atlantic Ocean. As of the 2008 Census, the nation is home to3,476,608 people and covers 111,369 square kilometers (43,000 sq mi).  Liberia has a hot equatorial climate with most rainfall arriving in summer with harsh winds in the dry season. Founded as a colony by the American Colonization Society in 1821-22, it was created as a place for slaves freed in the United States to emigrate to in Africa, on the premise they would have greater freedom and equality there.  Slaves freed from ships also were sent there instead of being repatriated to their countries of origin.  These freed slaves formed an elite group in Liberian society, and in 1847, they founded the Republic of Liberia, a government modeled on that of the United States.  Monrovia, their capital city was named after James Monroe, the fifth president of the U.S. and a supporter of the colonization.

A military-led coup in 1980, overthrew then-president William R. Tolbert, which marked the beginning of a period of instability that eventually led to a civil war that left hundreds of thousands of people dead and devastated the country's economy. Today, Liberia is recovering from the lingering effects of the civil war and related economic dislocation.  Source Wikipedia

More than half of the 1.2 billion people who do not have access to water are women and girls. Daily, they are responsible for collecting water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, hygiene, and sanitation. The huge burden of fetching water hinders women's and girls' participation in activities such as education, politics, economic endeavors, rest, and recreation.  Read More

Clean water should be amended as a right and this I will advocate and this I will fight... Water is a thing that many cherish- for without it, man will surely perish... Water is needed by both animal and tree... water is needed by both you and me... lack of water affects millions a year, chance of death is what many fear... the body will dehydrate without water,  it affects the heart, lungs, brain and liver... clean water is a matter of living and dying... clean water for all is what I am supporting.. clean water is not a luxury- clean water is a necessity... having sustainable clean water should be a universal right... Transcript for water poem~ Taylor Johnson

Terra crop Liberia August 2009 151 (2).jpgTerra Pressler, recovering attorney and adjunct theater and creativity professor at the University of Tampa, taught Global Issues for the first time last fall. She was appalled by what she learned about the lack of clean water  through-out the developing world and what that means for women and children. About 8 million children per year die from bad water. Little girls typically have to walk miles every day to collect often fetid water for their families, thereby denying them an education and thus the ability to break the cycle of poverty; they are also often victims of sexual attack during these times.  



Terra Africa water.jpgCalled to act, Terra researched organizations that put in village pumps in sub-Saharan Africa, focusing on those that included education, follow-through, and in-country involvement. She was most impressed with Lifewater Canada http://www.lifewater.ca/ and signed up with a team of volunteers heading to Liberia in August, 2009. This is her story.

How do I describe the indescribable? Twenty years ago, Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, was a modern city. Then fifteen years of rebel warfare left its million and a half residents with virtually no power, running water, or sewage. President Sirleaf is working hard on restoration, but heaps of garbage the size of small houses line the streets, the people light with candles and battery-powered lanterns at night, if they light at all, and water is carried from pumps or fetid pools. In one area of the city a single latrine serves 72 thousand people.  With typical Liberian aplomb in the face of an untenable situation, people defecate into plastic bags at night, then laughingly lob these "pupu balls" into another neighborhood-any but their own. And the garbage piles grow.

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This is the 4th poorest country on the planet, a place so poor they have someone who repairs broken light bulbs, for god's sake.  Everyone over the age of four has either experienced or witnessed unspeakable horror from what they call The Crisis.  And yet the people are amazing: resilient, strong, radiant. In-country for two weeks, I observed begging only once and that from a man in a wheelchair who quietly sat staring and repeating the word "Brother? Brother?"  Instead, people stack wheelbarrows with all manner of goods-soaps in one, bras in another, shoes, CDs, anything you can imagine--and sell them on the street, most notoriously in a place called the Red Light District (not what you think-it's called that because it used to have a traffic light!) This cacophonous anthill of a place stretches on for blocks and blocks, swarming with people and diesel-spewing trucks and taxis; it started during the war as a tacit "safe zone" for all factions to purchase goods and grew from that. We had to pass through it every day on our way from the Lifewater compound into town. The only time it was fun was when I stood in the back of the truck and could get the wind and a bird's eye view. To see a white O Ma (grandma) in the back of a truck was a source of unending wonder for the Liberians. (We were typically the only white faces we'd see all day. The standard joke, of course, was "Blend, Vinnie, blend.")

The compound itself was a construction site, so provided no peaceful oasis there. Every morning, twenty or thirty workers, sometimes with their women and children in tow, would turn the place into an ersatz village of banging hammers, buzzing drills, and roaring welders. My team members-three Canadians and three Americans-were as different as could be, yet worked well in tandem at a myriad of jobs, from construction to teaching to well-drilling.

One of our security "watching men," Old Man Morris (so-named because he's an elder) invited the three women on our team to his village, a short walk away. The village, a neatly maintained affair of stick and daub houses covered with mud or concrete and topped by zinc panels, had been created by refugees seeking to escape the war, so was unusual in that it held many different tribes and religions. Several elders decided I needed an African name, so I am now officially "Nowa," pronounced "new eye," meaning "the space in between" in the Pele tribe dialect. As the Elders decided on my new name, Morris' grandson Samson sat on my lap and utterly beguiled me while chickens scratched through a pouring rain-it's rainy season and hard rain falls from twelve to twenty hours per day. 

Our first day there, we observed a workshop put on by Lifewater's novice Health and Hygiene team and were delighted to find each of the three trainers hugely capable and dynamic. Over the next two weeks we worked with them about new hygiene and sanitation teaching methods, going to many small villages to speak with the people. My friend MaryAnn Salmone had created a set of Liberian-oriented drawings to use in the teaching, a big step up from the previous pictures. I taught them aTerra Liberia group August 2009 169.jpg couple songs and a story, most notably "The Best Health and Hygiene Rap Song Ever" (okay,  the only H & H Rap song ever. Sample lyric: "don't pupu in the bush; it'll make you sad/ poop carries disease; it's bad bad bad." Hey, did I say it was sophisticated?) I was honored to be asked to perform it to the poly-rhythmic clapping of villagers at a workshop our last day there. What a hoot! The story and another song also went over wonderfully well. Mostly, they taught us about resilience and grace. Our primary assist was in getting them greater financing and recognition, which will help hugely in community education. Clean water isn't enough if people aren't practicing proper sanitation, but "you don't know what you don't know." With education and motivation combined with clean water, children who before had little chance of surviving beyond the age of five will now thrive. 

Terra Liberia August 2009 138.jpgSinging is everywhere. Whole villages sing in harmony-that's how workshops are started. At one little village an ersatz choir of kids regaled us with a hymn. I had the great honor of recording a multi-village choir that had been put together to sing at a 300th well ceremony a while back. They're having trouble staying together so are hoping this recording can be converted into a CD they can sell at concerts.  Only twenty people showed up at the little Baptist church, but they sounded like a hundred-voice choir. By the middle of the first piece I was in tears at the sheer beauty and power of the music that poured over me, a song about freedom from war. I also had the grand opportunity of singing "Amazing Grace" as a solo at a Methodist Church one Sunday, the result of my misunderstanding when our host asked if I wished to make "a selection"--for the choir, I assumed, until they called me up to sing. And of course I did, to the kind approbation of the congregation. (I think they were a little surprised that the white chick could sing!) To be able to sing that song, written by a slaver who realized the error of his ways, in that place was an emotional "Kodak moment."

I bonded well and truly with our Liberian team, especially with Patience, a sweet single mother, who, though she only earns a base pay of $50 per month, bought me a dress as a present to remember her by. She's already called since I've been home toTerra Liberia Ladies August 2009 161.jpg check in.  So has my surrogate African "son" Elton, who had given up his life dream of a university education to be a research chemist, unable to afford the $4,000. such an education costs.  Another teammate and I have assured Elton he'll get his education, a small "take that!"  to the brain drain that  occurred in the country during The Crisis. (Elton never asked; I pumped him for the info and his gratitude runs deep.)

(photo above and right- shows several of our Health & Hygiene team women broken down on the road on the way to a village workshop. Eventually, the guys showed up, push- started the truck and we were back in business. In order: Patience, Ma Sarah, Tewa, Nowa)

My final memory of Liberia says it all: Elton was driving me to the airport and stopped for fuel. They only put in three gallons at a time to avoid being siphoned and those three gallons are poured through a funnel out of huge mayo jars, since there's no power for the pumps. While waiting, a gaggle of kids surrounded us, drawn by the spectacle of a white face. Some pop music was playing and a young, sassy girl began dancing for me. I started bouncing in my seat in time and-how could I stop myself?-was soon out boogying down with all the kids to the uncontrolled hilarity of the adults present. It was a sweet moment and, like Liberia itself, filled with vitality and hope amid broken-down chaos.

Thanks to all of you; you were with me, whether you knew it or not. It wasn't easy-chaos isn't-and there were days I leaned back in your love and support. Ultimately, though, with that support, Mama Africa embraced this O Ma and this O Ma embraced back.

Peace, hope, joy,

Nowa Terra

About Lifewater

Because Water is Life

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Lifewater Canada is a registered, non-profit humanitarian organization (charitable number: 885420737RR0001). Lifewater.ca is a group of volunteers that trains, equips & supports the rural poor in Africa to drill wells and build washrooms. The organization assists overseas villages that can't afford the full cost of critically needed water & sanitation facilities.

A sponsorship works to save the lives of children and dramatically improves educational opportunities for young girls.

For more information:  http://www.lifewater.ca/

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