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.