In this Malawi village, change starts slowly as a convenient new pump and fresh water ease women’s burdens ahead of a new goat project.

Story by Austin Bailey, World Ark senior editor
Photos by Russell Powell

Tapping into Possibilities
Agnes Hedisoni, 11, plays in the water with other children from Ndaula village. Never before has the community had such a safe, abundant supply of water so close to home.

NDAULA, MALAWI—when you talk about water, you talk about women. In Malawi, as in many developing countries, it’s women who walk miles to fetch the water and women who balance water buckets on their heads even as they haul children on their backs. It’s women who need water to get the cooking and washing done. It’s also women who tend to their children when they fall sick with cholera, or diarrhea, or other waterborne illnesses.

On the dusty red roads and footpaths leading away from Ndaula, a village in the central region of Malawi, women used to walk an hour or more to get to the closest wells, still miles away. During dry weather, the women had two choices: wait in line, sometimes for hours, for their turn to scrape up water as it slowly refills the nearly dry well, or take their chances with the murky water easily gotten from a pit in nearby wetlands.

Both options came with serious drawbacks. If the women took water from the pit in the dambo, or wetlands, they and their family risked becoming sick from bacteria or parasites. If they made the trek to the nearly dry wells and had to spend hours waiting, a few risked being beaten by their husbands upon return. Some of the men in Ndaula wouldn’t believe fetching water could take so long and accused their wives of visiting boyfriends in other villages.

Agnes Chisale, a village elder who reports her age as 88, made the daily walk for water for decades. Women from throughout the village would gather around 6 a.m. to make the hour-long walk together, and they would pass the two- or three-hour wait in line at the well together, too. Chisale also remembers many times when sickness—either diarrhea or abdominal pain and bloody urine—broke out from water fetched in the dambo.

The younger women are lucky to be spared having to make this choice between long walks and potential sickness thanks to a new borehole that brings clean water right to the village square.

Heifer International is known for its interventions with hooves and feathers, not cement and steel. But when Heifer came to Ndaula, it was clear that the women would be overburdened if they had to add fetching water for the animals to their list of daily chores.

Tapping into Possibilities
Odeta Shata, above, hauls water from the swampy wetlands near Ndaula village. Although easy to get, the water is often dangerously dirty.

In the past, the lack of clean and readily available water would preclude Ndaula and places like it from becoming a Heifer project site. But in recent decades as access to water became a challenge for more people around the world, Heifer began dedicating more of its resources to helping people tap the water they need to become self-reliant.

“For me, hunger and thirst are two sides of the same coin,” explained Elizabeth Bintliff, Heifer’s vice president for Africa. “we can’t not pay attention to it.”

And so, in Ndaula, the borehole came before the goats. Bursts of cool water pour easily from the pristine new pump, then sluice their way down a smooth cement trough. A thoughtfully placed cement stump provides the perfect halfway point as women hoist heavy buckets from the ground to the stump, then from the stump up to their heads. Any water not captured spills down the trough and drops back down into the ground.

The pump, on display right next to the sturdy tree that marks the village square, is visible from the dirt road that runs past Ndaula. it’s a natural gathering place for the women who make the now short trip to fetch water each day, and on a May day both men and women met beside the borehole to talk about the second phase of the Heifer project.

Residents met there for a community-wide meeting to talk about the changes wrought by the borehole as well as the changes everyone expects when the goats arrive. Some of the families slated to receive the first goats are already finished constructing elevated pens and fencing to keep their goats safe and out of their neighbors’ gardens. Constructed about four or five feet off the ground, these pens have screen-like floors that let the manure and urine fall through so they can be easily gathered and used for fertilizer, while also keeping the goats’ living space relatively clean. The tops of those tall pens peeked over the grass roofs of the mud-walled houses bordering the square.

Tapping into Possibilities
A young girl totes both a tub of water and a younger sibling home after fetching water from the village borehole.

Women settled on the dusty ground with their children, while men claimed all of the chairs. It’s a familiar seating arrangement in rural Malawi, where women shoulder most of the work and men take on most of the lounging. The daily demands of childcare, cooking, washing, gardening and animal care all fall to the women, whose straight backs and chiseled arms hint at the strength that’s required of them each day. Men’s work is more seasonal and sporadic. They’re responsible for patching roofs, doing farm work and otherwise keeping homes in good repair. A man who steps in to help with the children risks being mocked by other men. This antiquated, gender-based division of labor is budging only slowly, and young mothers worry their daughters will be hamstrung by the same system.

“The men don’t want to change anything,” said Cecelia German, mother of 1-year-old Ida. “We’re fearing our daughters will fall into this tradition.”

German is right to be concerned. “It is time for our visitors to go,” one man said, eliciting laughter from the others, when questions about changing women’s status in the village came up.

But hints of change are already here. A roughly equal number of young girls march off to school each day as boys, although girls are more likely than boys to drop out after primary school. Women are more likely to plan smaller families than in the past to be better able to afford education expenses for all their children. The village council for Ndaula remains all men, but the leadership for the community group in charge of implementing the Heifer project includes women. The hope is that as women become more unburdened, with the help of things like a convenient source of clean water and the improved health and increased energy coming from the meat and income their new goats will bring, they will build on this momentum.

Resistance is likely, but so is success. Some men sit together in a row on the ground during the meeting, Gelemani C. Kulijani among them. In his arms is Ida, the daughter he shares with his wife Cecelia German. Kulijani offers a sheepish smile when the conversation turns to women’s work, but he holds his daughter proudly. Daudi Lizineti, age 60 and the oldest man at the meeting, speaks up. Women work hard and deserve more help and more freedom, he said, nodding toward Kulijani.

“This is what’s needed,” he said.

Heifer Gets Its Feet Wet

Tapping into Possibilities
Gertrude Kajedula, 12, will never have to trek hours and miles to fetch water like her mother once did. The young women of Ndaula now have more time to devote to school.

In Heifer International’s early days, groups hoping to take on a Heifer project had to have easy access to clean water. The thinking was that a reliable water source is non-negotiable to ensure healthy livestock and productive fields, so starting a project where water isn’t readily available creates a burden for the community members — most likely women and children — charged with fetching and hauling water.

In some cases, that line of thinking kept Heifer from working with the people who needed help most. As maintaining access to clean, reliable water sources becomes difficult for more people around the world, Heifer International is tweaking its approach, dedicating more resources to ensuring its project participants have the water they need to become self-reliant.

Today, it’s not unusual for Heifer’s work to include drilling boreholes, digging wells or helping to set up filtration systems where water is available but the quality is poor. In a number of projects, Heifer partners with other nonprofits that can bring a breadth of knowledge and experience to help communities tap into clean, abundant water sources.

FOR EXAMPLE:

  • Cisterns installed at a Heifer project community in Maniche, Haiti, save time and energy for residents who no longer have to trek nearly three miles each day to fetch water.
  • In Vietnam, project participants in the Long Phu District, Soc Trang Province, now have hand-pumped wells that provide clean water for drinking, cooking and bathing. They no longer rely on unsafe river water.
  • A community in Suswa, Kenya, has no running water and used to rely solely on water that was trucked in during dry weather. But with help from Heifer and Kenyan NGO Ramat, community members built a system of pipes and tanks to capture rainwater for their cattle.
  • “Adding water to our list of things we can do changed where we can work,” said Elizabeth Bintliff, Heifer’s vice president for the Africa program. “We’re a little bit more intentionally part of the solution. We’re not excluding target groups because of something they don’t have. Instead, we’re helping them get it.”