Early in the morning on June 5th 2014, I found myself bumping along a dusty road in the back seat of a Land Cruiser, gazing up at the mighty Mt. Kilimanjaro in the Kingori district of Tanzania.
We turned off the rough dirt road into the driveway of a humble home. Before I’d even gotten a chance to open the car door, the mother of the house (or simply “Mama”, as we’d learn to call her) had reached through the open window to embrace me. Her gentle but firm grip clasped over both of my hands, and her genuine smile and welling eyes said what I needed no translator to tell me: her gratitude and happiness were boundless.
I’d travelled thousands of miles from my home in North America with several Lush colleagues to work with Save the Rain, a non-profit organization we support through our Charity Pot program. We’d come to Tanzania to help construct six rainwater catchment systems for families in need—a project our customers had funded directly through their purchase of Charity Pot hand and body lotion.
Save the Rain had selected Mama to be a recipient of a residential rainwater catchment system. Just one year ago her husband was killed in a traffic accident, leaving her and her children overwhelmed with grief, with little opportunity to earn a living. You see, collecting water for household use (including cooking, cleaning, bathing and watering livestock) is incredibly time consuming and prevents many Tanzanian women from pursuing further education or participating in income-generating activities like attending markets. In this way, lack of access to clean water keeps families in a cycle of poverty—a cycle we had come here to break.
The rainwater catchment systems we were about to build provide a simple and effective solution to this water crisis: they capture rainwater that falls on rooftops and divert it through a filtering system to a holding tank. Here, the water can be stored safely until it’s required. This eliminates the need to walk for water, and ensures the water is clean and healthy.
Over the next 8 days, I had the privilege of working alongside Naomi and Helena: full-time masons working for Save the Rain who had built over 200 rainwater catchment systems together. Both women had once been recipients of a residential catchment system themselves. Once they were freed from the burden of daily water collection, they joined Save the Rain as full-time employees where they learned the art of masonry. They are now able to provide for their families through their employment, while also helping other families in need with their craft. With Naomi and Helena’s help I clumsily tried my hand at mortaring, mixing concrete and hanging gutters. Each afternoon I left Mama’s home covered in dirt, with smudges of concrete across my forehead and a smile that I simply couldn’t shake. And every day, the project came closer to completion. It was exhilarating to know that each hour of each day, we were getting closer to providing Mama and her family with clean water.
While working to build the catchment system, I chatted with Mama and found out how she currently collects water. She uses the family’s donkey to walk about 30 minutes each way to collect water once per day. She travels to a privately-owned well, and pays to fill four barrels with groundwater. This costs about 4 schillings per day, amounting to around 120 schillings per month—a huge expenditure for a family that’s struggling to generate any income. Not only is this water expensive, it’s contaminated with toxic levels of fluoride due to the area’s unique geology and poses a serious health risk to those who drink it.
As we neared the end of our catchment construction, Mama exuded excitement and overwhelming gratitude at every opportunity. When I asked her how the water catchment system would change things for her and her family, she replied simply, “life will be perfect”. This woman who had lost her husband, had no reliable income and still has three children to raise taught me the meaning of graciousness, happiness and the power of perseverance.
When we left Mama’s home for the last time, tears flowed freely down everyone’s cheeks as we entwined in long embraces. It felt like I was leaving a piece of my heart with this incredible family and the masons we had worked alongside. The legacy we left will continue to provide clean, safe drinking water for this family for generations to come, and the memories we created will stay with me forever.