The journey to Irkaat Primary School in Kenya’s Maasai Mara in February is a hot and dusty one. The rains haven’t come and the snaking, bumpy roads are cracked from the sun. The trees and grass lining the side of the pathway are brown, an eerie contrast to the beautiful green during the rainy season.
We make our way to the school on a windy Monday morning to ask Grade 8 student Mercy Cherotich a simple question: “What does clean water mean to you?”
We arrive as students leave class for the mid-morning break, running out for a few minutes of play on the school’s hill that overlooks the sloping village.
A shy Mercy meets us in the head teacher’s office. The 13-year-old says she has many answers to that question. “Where do I start?”
After a few seconds of quiet, she gives her first answer: “It means being healthy,” she says in Swahili. This is a common answer across WE Charity partner communities in rural Kenya.
Lack of clean water is a major contributor to disease in Kenya—about 50 per cent of illnesses documented in hospitals throughout the country are water, sanitation or hygiene related, according to UNICEF. No one knows this better than Mercy.
Two years ago, when she was in Grade 6, Mercy was hospitalized with typhoid. She spent a week as an in-patient, missing school, as she was given medicine to fight the infection.
“The water we drank and used to cook with came from a river three hours away from home,” she explains. Animals would drink from the river, people bathed and washed their clothes in it, and still Mercy’s family would fetch the contaminated water for their own use. There was no other option. “I would vomit, sweat a lot and lost my appetite,” Mercy recalls. “The doctor said it was the water we were using.”
A month after Mercy’s hospital stay, WE Charity started to drill for water in Irkaat. The charity had been working in the community, implementing a development model that focuses on improving access to education, health, food, opportunity and water in communities. The organization had built classrooms and mobilized community members to start forming savings groups to find alternative sources of income. At the same time they started working with the water management committee—and figuring out how to get safe, clean drinking water to students like Mercy.
The benefits of clean water are multi-faceted. With a water kiosk available in a central location in the community—like the school!—people don’t walk long distances to get the water needed at home. Children have more time for school and the location actually encourages kids to come to class, particularly girls, because they can fulfill their domestic responsibilities while going to school. Parents also are proud to send their kids to a school with running water. Most important—the water is clean. They will not get sick from drinking it.
Within five days of drilling the workers found water. At the time Irkaat had no electricity and so the organization used solar power to pump water from the ground, becoming one of the first solar-run water kiosks in WE Charity partner communities. A 13-member water committee oversees the sustainability the project.
Mercy remembers the day the kiosk was officially opened. It was in June and they were on school holiday. Nevertheless, students and over 250 community members showed up for the ceremony. “There was a lot of singing and dancing,” she recalls.
As head teacher Rono Kipyegon explains, school attendance is up thanks to the new kiosk: “Having clean water means cleanliness in the school has improved since they have water to clean the school and school attendance has also improved since water borne diseases have reduced.”
While people wait for the rains to come, Irkaat community is thriving. The water kiosk continues to provide the school and community relief from the dry season. As for Mercy, she gives us one more answer to our question: “Clean water means I am able to shower more than twice a week.”