On Tuesday, June 7th, I started my fieldwork. The American NGO Just One Africa has distributed hundreds of water filters in Kimana, where I am living, and Loitokitok, a town 20 minutes down the road. Just One employs two Kenyans named Edward and Mike to follow up on the filters. Mike was already at Lenkai Christian School when I got there at around 9 am, and we chatted as we waited about an hour for Edward. When he arrived, we rode out of Lenkai on a motorbike, sped along for about 2 minutes, and ran out of fuel.
“These are the challenges of working for Just One Africa!” Edward jested as we walked along the road, pushing the bike. I remember thinking that he was right, that it seems like unexpected challenges are the norm when working in developing countries. Despite all my studying, I was realizing that I knew very little about real world development work. My global health research methods professor must have forgotten to mention the importance of making sure your motorbike has fuel before going to the field.
People stared as we walked past them. Some laughed. “They’re laughing at us…” Mike said, smiling and laughing himself. Their attitude was light and easy going, but I was eager to see a water filter in the field. I had invested much of myself in the filters during the last two years.
In 2014, before my senior year of highschool, I founded Simple Charity, a Christian organization that raises money for NGOs that alleviate poverty around the world. Simple Charity raised funds by selling homemade spray-painted t-shirts, holding events, and soliciting donations from internet-goers and unsuspecting pedestrians alike. We spent hours researching NGOs so that our money would have a focused, measurable impact. Simple Charity was my lifeblood senior year. It simultaneously energized and exhausted me everyday.
When I met Amy Churchill, one of the founders of Just One Africa, I remember being impressed with their clean water initiative. Actually, I was thrilled. For just $65 a filter, a family could be given clean drinking water for life. In the past two years, Simple Charity raised over $11,000 for Just One. About 150 more filters have been distributed in Kenya because of our work. During my field work, I would have the privilege of meeting some of the families who benefited from the filters. For me, following up on water filters was the difference between theory and practice, text and texture, numbers and human faces. I would finally get to taste the fruit of Simple Charity.
After walking for three kilometers with our motorbike, we made it to a Shell station. We fueled up and then headed towards Loitokitok, passing wide open farmland on both sides and then markets as we got closer to the city. Suddenly, we turned right, off of the smooth black pavement and onto bumpy dirt roads. Mike, who was sitting in front me and behind Edward, yelled back “How do you like African roads?” The roads made me feel like I was on a jet ski in choppy waters, except clouds of dust, not mist, rose when we hit waves.
Finally, we arrived at a house. We went to the door, and a woman welcomed us into her home. We sat down on chairs in the living room. Then, Edward motioned to me to ask her questions. I began, somewhat nervously, by asking how her life has been different since receiving the filter. She said that before the filter, her family had lots of stomach problems and that the youngest child was affected the most. The doctor would tell them they had typhoid. Now, no one in the house gets sick from water. She told me that the majority of people in the community don’t have filters and that she shares hers with one of her neighbors. I could tell that she wanted others in the community to have clean water too.
We thanked the woman for her time and then left for the next house, only a minute or so away. Again, we were warmly welcomed. The owner told us that after receiving the filter, she doesn’t have to “boil or treat water each and every time”. Her eyes looked thankful, and she smiled often as we talked. She said that she would have been willing to pay as much as 5,000 Kenyan shillings for the filter. This is just slightly less than how much it costs. It’s a considerable amount of money in the local economy.
The third house was particularly memorable. As we walked in, there was music playing from a radio station. The walls were covered in milk cartons which had been pulled apart to make large rectangles. A calendar hung on the wall. The homeowner’s commitment to hospitality seemed to be reflected in her resourceful use of decor and her warm, inviting smile. She was proud of the water filter, which she held up to me immediately saying that it still works after a whole year. One year old, that means that it could have been one of the filters paid for by Simple Charity’s work my senior year. It could be the direct result of our Battle of the Bands fundraiser or our 5k or our end of the year banquet. “We are not facing again the challenges of waterborne diseases since receiving the filter,” she told me. Those words were sweet and satisfying. I wanted to hold onto the flavor of the moment. I wanted it to linger on my mind.
We went to five more houses that first day. The stories were the same. Before the filter, sickness plagued the household. After the filter, families were healthier, and less money had to be spent on visits to the doctor. These stories were captured permanently in our surveys, to be told to the world.
Two days later, Edward and I did more follow-ups in Loitokitok. First, we went to Boma la Tumaini, a place with free medicine, advice, and hope for women who are HIV positive, to get the contact information of the people we would visit. We entered the main building, and Edward introduced me to Mary who sat at the front desk. Mary told me about the women with HIV, how Boma helps them and how Just One gave them all water filters. Edward asked Mary for the contact information of some of the women so that we could conduct follow-ups. Then, he went outside to make phone calls. Sitting in front of Mary’s desk, I noticed a quote on a crowded bulletin board on the wall. It read, “After all of this is over, all that will have really mattered is how we treated each other.” I scribbled it down before Edward came back and said that it’s time to go.
All that will have really mattered is how we treated each other. The words ring with truth. Back home in the states, I didn’t know the names of the people Simple Charity helped, but that didn’t matter. I never thought I would see their homes, hear their voices, shake their hands, or enjoy their company, but that didn’t matter. Doing follow-ups, I saw in full color what I had only imagined in black and white. I witnessed how lives can be changed through generosity. I saw that how people treat other people, even unknown people on the other side of the planet, really matters.