Water is life. It has become a cliché, but sometimes clichés are true. For people living in Sierra Leone, those three words are a daily reality that is never taken for granted. Each day’s schedule revolves around collecting water for drinking, cooking, bathing, and laundry. For most, the task also brings with it the worry that contaminants in the water may cause illness. In fact, thousands of children in the country die each year due to water-related diseases that are almost entirely preventable.
“Sometimes we got sick because of germs,” says Davida, a young mother of two boys, ages 4 and 2. “The children got very sick with diarrhea.”
Davida walked four to five times a day to collect that dirty water. The walk takes about 20 minutes each way, which equates to an average of three hours a day walking for water.
Amina, a young woman in her 20s from a different community, shares a similar story. “You spend all your time there at the stream,” she says. “I was sad every day.”
A 2012 survey of 28,000 water points in Sierra Leone, conducted by the government’s Ministry of Water Resources, showed that 52 percent of people in rural areas have no access to safe water, and as many as 40 percent of the water points provide water consistently only during the rainy season.
The Church of the Nazarene in Sierra Leone is determined to work toward changing those numbers.
“As a church, we cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the things that affect our people,” says Rev. Vidal Cole, who serves as the Nazarene district superintendent in Sierra Leone. “In as much as we won’t be able to meet all the needs, still we must do what we can. The church is the agent of change in the community. … We should not just seek to affect the spiritual needs of our people. When we meet community needs, we send a strong message to our communities that we care about them. I believe that’s the way Jesus ministered in His days, and we have been called to do nothing less.”
More water now
Davida is from a community called Monkey Bush, located about 30 kilometers from Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital city. Until about 10 years ago, the area was little more than a thicket of trees occupied by small monkeys. Today, you’ll find a smattering of mango trees here and there, a carpet of fine red dust on the ground, and a development of cement block houses occupied by families who left the country’s interior, hoping to find more opportunities closer to the capital.
A few homes in Monkey Bush have hand-dug wells outside. These belong to families with money to buy cement and supplies and the strength to do the work. Despite their convenience, though, they are not the best solution for the country’s water problem. Once filled, a bucket of water has to sit for a while to allow the sediment to settle, and sometimes that isn’t enough. During certain times of the year, water is poured through a sieve to catch larger pieces of debris. Diarrheal disease is common.
Hand-dug wells reach only the first level of the water table, which is contaminated by ground water runoff. In Sierra Leone, the water is also contaminated by mineral content that is hazardous when consumed. What’s more, any contaminants on individual buckets that are lowered into the well are then introduced to the water supply.
The Nazarene church in Monkey Bush recently introduced a borehole well, which goes to the deeper, uncontaminated levels of the water table.
“I feel happy,” Davida says. “We have more water now.”
“We are also happy for the water,” says Zainabu, a mother of six children, ages 15, 10, 12, 5, 1, and 2 months. “The difference is so much. Now, water is constant. Before, the distance brought suffering to walk so far carrying water.”
Now that Zainabu and her children don’t have to spend hours each day to collect water, they are able to “spend more time as a family,” she says.
Women’s (and Girls’) Work
In Sierra Leone, as in most parts of the world, the responsibility for collecting water for the household falls on women and children, mostly girls. As a result, girls are often late to classes, or they have to miss school altogether on some days. With easy access to water, girls have equal access to the opportunities that come with education.
Sabi* is a young girl who attends a small primary school of about 90 students. Until very recently, she had to walk about 40 minutes round-trip for one bucket of water, a journey that requires hiking up and down a steep slope. The return trip meant making the hike with a 5-gallon bucket of water on her head—something Sabi did four to five times a day. Today, she simply has to walk on flat ground to the well on the school’s property, where she can pump all the water she needs to complete her chore.
“Now, we are not suffering like before,” she says. “Now, I can spend more time at home.”
Fatu,* 14, describes the process of walking for water before the well was installed. “It was hard,” she says. “The sun was very hot under our feet. The large buckets were heavy on our heads. … I feel so happy for the new hand pump.”
Fatmata is also glad she can spend more time in school now. “After school, I want to be an office worker—a book keeper,” she says.
The story is nearly identical in the nearby community of Fire Mambo.
Finda*, 11, wants to be a lawyer when she grows up. In even a short conversation, her fierce determination is obvious. Not only does the well enable her to get to school on time, but she no longer misses school due to stomach aches caused by drinking dirty water.
“I’m happy now that we have the well,” she says. “Before, I missed school, or I was late most of the time. The teacher flogs us when we are late. I am on time now.”
Come to the well
“This is the help of our church,” says Pastor Joseph Bangura, who leads the Monkey Bush Church of the Nazarene and also teaches at the school there. He emphasizes the fact that anyone can come to the church to pump water, not just those who are members. “I have a church that makes me biggo (proud),” he adds. “Holiness shows love. Anyone can get water here. People in the community say, ‘You extended love without even knowing us.’ Jesus extended His love through us. ... It’s like the [Casting Crowns] song says: ‘Come to the well.’”
Fatmata, 23, is a member of the Nazarene church in Monkey Bush. The mother of a toddler son, she says, “I am happy and tell God thanks. Our neighbors say the church has done well for the community. I believe some will come and be a part [of the church].”
In Fire Mambo, Theresa, says, “What the [Nazarene] church has done, we cannot repay—only God can.”
According to the mother of a 5-year-old daughter, the water they were able to access prior to the borehole was not pure. “Children got sick because people use the stream as a toilet and for laundry,” she says.
The wells in Monkey Bush and Fire Mambo are the result of a partnership between the Church of the Nazarene through Nazarene Compassionate Ministries and World Hope International, a relief and development organization associated with the Wesleyan Church. Through the partnership, the Church of the Nazarene is working with six communities in Sierra Leone to create integrated projects that combine safe water through wells, improved sanitation through pit latrines, and hygiene education. Each community selects a water committee, which maintains and sustains the well. Anyone who comes for water is asked to contribute 200 Leones per bucket, which amounts to about 5 cents (USD), for a maintenance fund.
The project targets communities that were most affected by the recent Ebola crisis. Monkey Bush was considered an Ebola hot spot. As just one example of the devastation the virus caused, Pastor Joseph says he lost four of the 18 members of his church, two adults and two teenagers.
Pastor Sia, who leads the Nazarene church in Fire Mambo notes that many people in her community died during the Ebola outbreak, including children.
Between May 2014 and March 2016, there were more than 14,000 cases of Ebola in Sierra Leone, and more than 3,900 people died as a result. The virus spread quickly in part because of the lack of water, sanitation facilities, and hygiene practices. The virus spread through bodily fluids and waste, making water for washing and sufficient sanitation facilities critical. The hope is to help prevent future outbreaks of Ebola as well as other diseases.
Another area where the church is implementing a WASH project is Ogoo Farm, a rural community past the outer edges of Freetown. There, Pastor James Fullah experienced the grief brought by Ebola personally when he lost his wife, Isatu, to the disease.
Even in the midst of loss, Pastor Fullah is thankful for the gift of clean water through a new well. “We praise God, and we are very glad about this well,” he says. “We thank God for it because people are suffering for water in this community. We didn’t have pure water. We only got water from streams and very dangerous places where children can fall and get wounded. This is a safe place. A lot of families will benefit from this well.”
Kariatou, a mother of five, says, “I have peace of mind now. Before, children had to go a long distance to the stream. It was not safe. The road is bad and narrow, and there is a steep slope where they can fall. There are also snakes, and they had to cross a rushing river that can carry them away.”
Musu Allieu, a member of the community’s new water committee, expresses her gratitude, too. “God is in this kind of church [that meets needs]. It’s like when Jesus said, ‘When someone is hungry, give food. When someone is thirsty, give water.’ The people have God in their hearts.”
According to Musu, before the well was installed, they had to collect water from a stream that caused much sickness. “It was only good for cooking [if boiled] and laundry,” she says.
The only option for drinking water was to purchase water sachets—small plastic bags containing about half a liter of purified water. Each bag costs only about 250 to 500 Leones (6 to 12 cents, USD), but someone would have to purchase several bags each day just to drink the 2.5 liters of water that experts recommend for maintaining basic health. In a country where 70 percent of people live on less than $1 a day, paying for water sachets is no small consideration.
The day the well in Ogoo Farm was first available for use brought celebration among children and adults alike. Idrissa, 29, was among those gathered for a prayer and dedication. “The [Nazarene] church is blessed,” he says. “The Bible says to help those who are weak, and people were suffering here.”
He ends with three simple words: “Water is life.”
* Children’s names are changed for their protection.