Water Walk

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about yesterday.  My son and I shared an experience together that was so deeply memorable and significant that I have had trouble getting my head in the game today.

Last week while on the Calvin College campus, I had heard from a student about a “Water Walk”, an event that was created by the guys from the band Jars of Clay on behalf of Blood:Water Mission and a student organization at Calvin.  A Water Walk is an opportunity to experience what it is like for Africans to travel several hours daily to collect the water they will need for that day for drinking, cooking and cleaning and whatever else they may need.

The women of the villages along with their children make this daily trek, sometimes twice a day.  They don’t make the journey because they don’t have anything better to do.  They make the journey because they have no choice.  It is a life and death matter.  So when the student explained what they were doing and why, I quickly thought of my oldest son Cody.  He’s five years old and starting to get to the age where he is observing the world around him and seems genuinely interested in life.  I thought it would be a good thing for us to share together.

Cody and I arrived a little early.  I was carrying my wife’s mop bucket and my son had an empty gallon milk jug.  He was intrigued by all the steps on the campus and was running around jumping off of things even though I was encouraging him to rest up for the trip.  I didn’t know what to expect.  I just imagined he would need the energy that was being used to jump into the flowerbeds.

Over the next few moments a group began to form and soon after that Dan, Charlie, Matt and Steve from Jars of Clay joined the group which had now grown to around 30 people.  I had known they were coming but I imagined they would just be kicking the walk off and sending us out.  I didn’t realize they would actually join us for the walk.  After a few thoughts from Dan, everyone began to choose buckets – some large, some small.  My bucket was the size of one of the smaller ones but I had the feeling I would be carrying more than water back with me, so I felt justified.

The walk was really enjoyable at first.  It was an amazing 60 degree October day and the leaves were so vibrant and beautiful.  I was spending time with my boy, not to mention the members of one of my favorite bands, and I was exercising, which doesn’t really happen all that much anymore.  We weaved our way around campus, carrying empty buckets and enjoying conversation.  Cody and I were quick to fall to the back of the line, as his strides are half that of anyone in the group.  About 20 minutes in, he asked if I could carry him, hence the small bucket, and so I threw him up on my shoulders and we kept following.  We left the campus and headed deep into the nature preserve on the other side of the highway.

As we arrived at the location where we would draw our water, the group grew quiet.  Two of the students trudged into the mud at the shore and we made a line so they could fill our buckets.  The walk there had been very casual, but Dan asked that we walk back in silence.  He urged us to feel the weight of the water and to imagine that this was our life.

And that is what we did.

Several carried the buckets above their heads while others opted for the handle, a thin metal luxury unknown to most Africans.  At one point I tried to hold the bucket against my chest but my steps were too clumsy and I sloshed water up and over the sides and onto my coat.  Within a hundred yards of our filling spot, Cody was worn out.  He asked if I could carry him and so he went back up on my shoulders, him holding his bucket and me holding mine.  We again fell quite far behind the group.  Dan lingered back to walk with us for a while before catching up with the rest.  As I carried Cody, his water jug resting against my face, the water sloshed out of the spout and onto my skin, one time dripping into my mouth.  The water tasted awful.  “All of this work,” I thought, “to carry dirty water.”

I knew this experience would be memorable, but I didn’t expect it to be so moving.  Until you feel the weight of the water in your hands, it’s hard to empathize.  Cody and I had a unique perspective bringing up the rear of the group.  Never before have I seen splashes of water on the ground where someone had sloshed their bucket too much and thought, “there’s a drink for someone.  There’s another.  And another.”  Every time I spilled my own water, I imagined having one less drink to offer the little ones I was coming home to.  Dan said that if a child spilled their bucket on the journey, they would go back to the water source.  A child.

Over the next 30 minutes, Cody went back and forth between walking and being carried.  It was quite clear the novelty had worn off and he was thinking about being done.  As we approached the steps where we had started two hours earlier, I asked him to walk the final stretch, carrying his own jug.  The group had already finished.  But as we walked up the steps, I felt a real sense of accomplishment.  I was proud of what we had done.

But then it sank in; for an African that did this daily, there wasn’t a sense of accomplishment but instead, duty.  This was their life and there would always be another walk.  Tomorrow will look a lot like today.

On our way home, we talked about what we had just experienced.  Cody asked me why the Africans had to walk to get their water every day and I told him because they didn’t have water in their villages.  He asked why they didn’t have water in their villages.  I said because they didn’t have the money.  He asked why we had the money to have water in our house.  I said something really vague.  He asked again.  I answered again.  He asked again and before I answered, I realized he was asking a different question than I was hearing.  He wasn’t asking questions about being born in the right place at the right time or having the opportunity to earn a decent wage.  He was asking why we had the money if they didn’t.  In other words, why wouldn’t we just give so they could have.  It seemed obvious to my five year old son that if we have more than they do, we should give until they have the same.

I had no answer.

At dinner, my wife was asking about our experience at the Water Walk.  When we were talking about the water being dirty, she asked Cody why they had to drink water that could make them sick, and he said something I can’t forget…that I hope I don’t forget.  He said the reason they have to drink dirty water is “because they have no choice.  That is the only water for them to drink.”

After dinner, I walked to the kitchen and filled my empty glass with a turn of the faucet.  It overflowed the glass into the sink below.  I literally walked five feet for cold, healthy water.

Something is terribly wrong here.


To learn more about Blood:Water Mission and how $1 can give 1 African water for 1 year, visit bloodwatermission.com.


12 thoughts on “Water Walk

  1. Wow- that’s awesome…I was actually in a moment of suburbia angst (if that makes any sense) when I clicked on your link. What a great lesson for your son- I’m sure it’ll impact him for the future. I want to raise my kids to know that life is about so much more than just living neat, comfortable Christian lives, but then I fear that I’m modeling just that. So, way to be proactive. Maybe I’ll get it together by the time my kids are your kids’ ages. 🙂

  2. What a great post. I’ve known about blood water mission before, but I think Cody’s reminder is best about giving our extra so they can have the basic.

  3. So moving Matt. Thank you for sharing your experience! I’m going to pass this on to our sr. pastor as this hits right at home here as we did a Spilling Hope campaign for this exact reason. Again, your story is so very powerful.

  4. I’m one of the few privileged to have been to Africa and helped carry water. I’ve felt the pain of the rustic buckets and the care with which you walk despite fatigue in order not to spill a drop. I’m also in the midst of experiencing the battle of parasites in the body of a little one who had no choice but to drink the contaminated water that was available to him. I get this post.

  5. Hey Matt:) The staff at BWM sent me your link so I could read it and know that the event was having a real impact on people involved. Thank you! Thank you for these words you have written so eloquently, they are so very, very true. I am glad that Cody gained so much from the experience. And having you both there really helped set an example or reality of what the walk would be like. As it is not often able-bodied adults single handedly going out for water at their own speedy pace, but rather women with their children,adolescent boys and girls sometimes having a child wrapped in a sling on their back and a jug in their arms, and even pregnant women with weight tugging them from up front and arms lifted high to balance water on their head. It’s so much struggle, it’s hard to even imagine.

    Thanks again for coming out. It was such a pleasure to meet you both. And thank you for not forgetting what you experienced and telling others in such a beautiful way, they will feel like they were there too. God bless!

  6. Matt-
    It was a gift to walk with you and Cody- my “holy moment” of the day, for sure. Your writing and observations are powerful and sobering. Thanks for being vulnerable and modeling sacrifice for your family. You made we want to bring my boys on a water walk. Peace to your family-
    Charlie Lowell

  7. Matt,

    Fantastic entry, brother. I love your angle and perspective. I sense you get my heart for orphan care. The empathy point was powerful, with dirty water splashing in your mouth. Well written. Thanks for sharing! It’s good to know another brother that gets it. Peace, Tim

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