For the past four summers, I was a counselor at Camp Cheerio, a traditional YMCA summer camp in the mountains of North Carolina that I truly adore (as people who meet me quickly learn). One of my favorite stories that we often told at camp and first made an impression on me years ago as a camper is a Hawaiian parable:
A man goes out on the beach and sees that it is covered with starfish that have washed up in the tide. A little boy is walking along, picking them up and throwing them back in the water.
“What are you doing son?” the man asks. “You see how many starfish there are? You’ll never make a difference.”
The boy paused thoughtfully, and picked up another starfish and threw it into the ocean.
“It sure made a difference to that one,” he said.
While in Malawi, I have been reading Half the Sky, a book recommended by Courtney Irving about remarkable people fighting against the oppression of women and lifting up women’s lives across the globe. (I second the recommendation by the way.) In it the authors included this parable, and I was reminded how much I love its simple yet lasting message — a message that means so much more to me after spending time in Malawi.
Each day we have met countless people with limited access to clean drinking water and in some cases, no access at all. Mothers, children, teachers, students, some living in rural areas, others living with HIV/AIDS have faced life-threatening waterborne illnesses and severe diarrhea (causing debilitating dehydration) from the dirty water they collect from unprotected wells, streams and even boreholes.
And they are just a small fraction of the millions of people who live without this vital resource, which so many people (including myself at times) take for granted. The global water crisis is a huge issue, and it is hard to know where to start to solve it. It can seem nearly impossible to tackle such a major problem. Can something as small as a water purification packet really make a difference?
After this experience, I can honestly say that I think so. In fact, it’s innovative, simple solutions like the P&G packets that are going to make all the difference.
They have made a difference in the life of Raudoni, a 7th grader we talked to today who is on his school’s sanitation committee and receives P&G packets through World Vision. A captivating, polite 14-year old boy with four sisters, Raudoni looks out for the youngest one when his mother isn’t around. He faces many hardships, and his teacher told us that he often comes to school late, hungry and dressed in dirty clothes, after trying to get food for his family. But one obstacle he no longer has to deal with is unsafe water. With the help of the packets, his family can clean their water, reducing the chance for waterborne illness and the number of times Raudoni has to stay home from school sick. More time in school means Raudoni has a better chance of one day reaching his goal to become a doctor to treat the people in his village.
Angella, Roudoni’s 13-year-old classmate, has also lived through many struggles, but the courage and optimism she showed as she told her story left us all a little teary-eyed. Angella, who never met her father, lost her mother when she was 8 years old. She then spent the next few years being raised by different relatives until moving in with her uncle and his fiancé, Chilungamo, who is also her 7th grade teacher. Her voice quiet and eyes watery, she told us how she wants to try hard in school and become an accountant to make her mother proud. Although she struggles in school, she works very hard and has become a leader outside the classroom as captain of the girls’ netball team. She has grown close with Chilungamo who cares deeply for Angella, and the two chatted like sisters. Before the interview, Chilungamo handed Angella her lip gloss to make sure she was camera ready. The P&G packets have decreased the number of days Angella has to stay home with diarrhea (and the number of days Chilungamo has to miss when she’s at home taking care of Angella), which will help Angella and her classmates improve in school.
Roudoni and Angella are just two of the children we met today. Two children trying to stay in school and achieve their dreams. Two children with families whose lives have improved because of the P&G purification packets.
So yes, the water crisis in Malawi and around the world is daunting, but we can’t get discouraged and let that stop us from trying to provide clean water to people in need. Every life changed matters.
It made a difference to Roudoni and Angella.