This is a guest post by Barbara Goldberg, Founder and President of Wells Bring Hope, an organisation working to deliver safe drinking water in West Africa. Listen to our interview with Barbara from 2012 and learn more about her and the organisation.
I didn’t know anything about the water crisis in West Africa. I didn’t know about the hardships of women and girls who walk miles every day to get water. I wasn’t alone. The fifty or so very smart and worldly women who were with me the night of what I’d call our “awakening” knew nothing either. How could this be?
In 2008, former Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti gave a talk to “Salon Forum,” a group that I founded twenty years earlier which brought women together for personal enrichment and connection. Through his words and powerful photographs, Gil conveyed the dire need for safe water in West Africa and the plight of women and girls who toil endlessly to get it. When we heard that one out of four children never reach their fifth birthday, we were too stunned to speak. Mothers who have to give water to their children that could result in their deaths? Girls who don’t get an education because they have to spend most of their day getting water? How could this be?
,The energy in the room was palpable. Shock was followed by anger; anger that women had to bear such hardship. We saw them as our sisters, mothers who wanted the same thing for their children—good health and an education.
On a rational level, we said, “This is a simple problem with a simple solution: drill a borehole well tapping into aquifers underground and give people safe water.” Many of us were businesswomen, used to solving problems and this seemed like one we could solve.
The next day, without thinking about the consequences of what I was about to do and the impact it would have on my life, I sent out an email to those in attendance asking, “Should Salon Forum take up this cause?” I got back a resounding, “Yes!”
Others not only said “yes,’ but also “I want to be involved. I want to be a part of this effort.” It was a cause that arose from passion, passion to help other women and girls, a determination to bring about dramatic change in the lives of villagers who deserved safe water and the opportunity for healthier lives. The women who joined me were part of a Task Force of fourteen women who, a little over two years later, would become the nonprofit organization, Wells Bring Hope.
We made some wise choices at the beginning and had the support of some great people. Our initial donors were the women of Salon Forum, to whom I’d make a pitch before almost every event over those first years. We partnered with World Vision to do our drilling and we chose to work in Niger, West Africa, the poorest country in the world at the time (it is now the second poorest country).
In less than a year after we started, I and five other women went to Niger to visit remote rural villages where many had never seen white people. We visited villages with and without safe water and we came back with a reinforced belief in what we were doing. I met a woman named Halima who lost 11 out of 12 children. Sadly, it is not unusual to lose a child in West Africa, but all but one of them? I saw Halima again three years later and while she will never grasp or get over the depth of her loss, she was thankful for her one remaining child and her brother’s child who lives with her to help with chores.
We made a video to help us with fundraising, to let people see what conditions are like in Niger and the hope that a well can bring. Best of all, we were able to speak about our cause based on personal observation and from talking to many women and girls to understand their needs, hopes and vision. We came back saying, “How could we not do this work?”
Over the years, our organization has expanded to include men as donors and volunteers and it is comprised of people from all over the country, many of them under 30. We speak to schools to generate awareness of the water crisis in Africa and many of them start “Water Circles” on our website to support us.
We are one of the few water causes that give micro-loans to women to start small businesses of their own. That is part of our project because we believe strongly that when 50% of a woman’s time is freed up from walking to get water, she needs to be able to work productively and earn money to contribute to the economic welfare of her family. We are strong advocates for the incorporation of micro-financing into the WASH formula, just as nutrition has been added by some to bring about a more dramatic positive impact. We believe that drilling a well is only the first step in improving lives. It is micro-financing for women that enables the transformation of lives for generations to come.