26 June 2008

Water is the Gift of Life [Maasai Mara, Kenya]

Water is the gift of life. We hear that often - but ask anyone who has suffered months of drought and they will tell you, indeed, this truth is more powerful than we might ever imagine.

Every day we are bombarded with statistics about how many people in the world are experiencing certain hardships; twelve million are refugees, over a billion live below the poverty line and countless others are deprived of adequate health care. But without putting a face to the statistic, we often experience a sense of resignation in the face of such unsettling facts.

I used to feel that way about the water shortages plaguing so many people in the world. I had read about how nearly 450 million people in 29 countries currently face severe water shortages today and by 2025 (when the world’s population increases by another 3 billion), as much as two-thirds of the world population could be water-stressed. But here in America, homeowners water their lawns for hours at a time, fire hydrants spray plentiful water onto the street and people leave faucets running because they are too lazy to turn them off. Americans may know that somehow water is important, but many certainly don’t treat it as the most valuable natural resources in the world. I have witnessed the perils of water shortages on previous trips to Africa; once while hitch-hiking through the sun-baked country of Namibia, I was dropped off for the night at a river where I could purify some water and set up camp. I walked to the sign that promised Red Gorge River, but arrived to find a dry riverbed. Suddenly deprived of this precious water source and saddled with a dehydration headache, I empathized with those that face this daily struggle. While in graduate school, my interest in water issues continued, as I wrote a major research paper on the future prospect of water-related wars, an especially dangerous possibility in the Middle East and East Africa, but it wasn’t until I met Jonathan Shuraki Koshal, a Maasai warrior from Kenya, that this water emergency hit home and inspired me to make a difference.

Late last year, my mother heard a report on NPR about a Chicago woman who while on a safari in Kenya with her family, was taken to visit a local Maasai community. The horrid conditions of the public school, coupled with the existence of a wonderful nearby charter school, inspired her to create her own foundation, Matanya’s Hope, which aims to improve the educational opportunities for these Maasai children. My mother befriended the founder and upon my return to Chicago this spring, we all worked together to organize fundraisers and traditional dance performances for Jonathan the five other Maasai tribesmen who were coming to Chicago to publicize their cause.

Though tall, dark and lanky like his Maasai brethren, what sets Jonathan apart is his disarming smile and playful nature. The time I spent with Jonathan over the course of a month was wonderful; we visited the aquarium (much to his child-like fascination), listened to music (he was enamored with my reggae collection), went out for ice cream and cooked big dinners here at home (Mexican was his cuisine of choice). At one point, while the cooking their native chapati bread in our kitchen, he and his friends confided that they only make these breads on special occasions because they cannot afford the flour. Bread, our most basic staple, is saved for “special occasions” due to the cost of flour? It is moments like that when the desperation of these peoples’ living conditions really hits home.

The Maasai are an indigenous pastoral tribe from the Great Rift Valley of Eastern Africa who are trying desperately to hold on to their rich cultural heritage while guaranteeing their own survival. Though communal in nature, they have been forced to embrace a market economy, which has made them dependent on market forces often out of their control. But the single existential threat facing the Maasai today is the scarcity of water. As a semi-nomadic peoples, the Maasai always moved based on the availability of water; in addition to their personal needs, water is crucially important to maintain their cattle, the Maasai’s only treasured possession. But the English colonial government and the current Kenyan and Tanzanian governments have tried to settle the Maasai by introducing “group ranches” and individual ownership, which has disrupted their traditional water-based migration pattern. As Jonathan tells me, this has had disastrous implications. The Maasai, he explains, have always believed water to be a community resource, with access guaranteed regardless of social status. They have a strong conservation ethic, as everyone is responsible in keeping water clean and herdsmen traditionally move from one wetland to another to allow the land to recover. But recent modernization in Kenya has made the wetlands a prime location for large-scale commercial agriculture projects, which is pushing the Maasai off of their traditional lands onto more arid landscape. Being confined to smaller areas of land with their livestock leads to over-grazing and land erosion which in turn results in desertification. The results, in many cases, have been deadly. When the small communal lake that the Koshal family has been confined to dried up last year, they were forced to travel over twelve miles to fetch water. Needless to say, trekking such a long distance through desert-like conditions makes everyday survival a tough task. Jonathan himself nearly died of thirst last year and at one point, was forced to drink cow urine to stay alive.

Finding myself face-to-face with a friend who nearly succumbed to death by dehydration, I felt ashamed for all of the times I had used the expression, “Man, I am dying of thirst!” Then and there, I pledged two things: first, never to use that expression and second, to assure that Jonathan won’t either.

With the help of my donors, I have contributed 20,000 Kenyan Shillings (US $300) to build a family-size rainwater storage tank for the Koshal family. This tank will guarantee a steady water supply for Jonathan and his extended family, ensuring their survival through the upcoming dry season, as water becomes more and more scarce. I am planning a trip to Africa in the fall and while there, I will look for local NGOs that are finding sustainable ways of increasing the water access for those in need, but until then I aim to support Jonathan’s family and other families in the Maasai Mara that are faced with life-threatening water shortages. Once again, a profound thank you goes out to all of my donors from Jonathan, his family and mine.


Anonymous said...

WOW, I'm so moved. When we met you in Rio de Janeiro, David and I had NO idea what you were/are about. As a Christian, I don't believe in coincidence. Therefore, I believe that God crossed our paths for reason whatever that maybe be.
You are a blessing to know.
Thank you for all you do! Keep us informed.
David and Shelia Smith

Dan said...

Adam -

It was good to hear you talk about your travels and writings last Monday at the College of Dupage. I'll be sure to send some traffic your way on your blog, and send a check out.

Keep up the good work!