I’m an unlikely executive director of a nonprofit organization that provides clean water to east Africa. Even though I’m still paying off my debt to law school, I’m not exactly using that degree. Nor am I using my experience in financial compliance or lobbying. But, I am doing something that changed my life and continues to change the lives of many others on the other side of the world.
When I was working in corporate America, I had a cocky confidence about my knowledge of global issues. After all, I clerked with the EPA and listened to NPR. I knew there was a water crisis in Africa, but it was part of a din of insurmountable world problems to which I applied an aloof objectivity that protected my heart from tragic reality. But, the direction and quality of my life changed when I felt the difference that clean water made for one little girl in rural Kenya.
In 2006, I started a nonprofit called Well Aware to help a friend get water to her father’s village in Kenya. I was asked to help raise funds for their dying animals because they had no water. I insisted that the real solution was a plentiful source of water, and I set out to learn how to drill a well. Turns out, it’s not easy, and there were big disappointments that nearly resulted in my resignation from the commitment a few times. But, I continued to tell anyone who would listen about my project, and I finally made a connection that enabled our first trip to Kenya to install a well in January of 2010.
On the airplane, traveling to Kenya that first time, I was thrilled that we were going to finally get the water well drilled, but I was unsure what would follow for me. Even though this single well had been a part-time project, it consumed a lot of my time. And, I couldn’t help but wonder what I might be able to accomplish (and earn) if I applied all of that energy elsewhere.
Driving out to our drilling location on that hot Tuesday morning in the-middle-of-nowhere, Kenya, and stepping out of our van onto the ground to see the drilling rig that was already shaking the earth, was surreal and exhilarating. The local Maasai were gathered around to watch, and the children shyly approached us to stare and interact. But what they wanted most of all was our water.
There was no clean water for kilometers in this village. Many of the children were ill from the contaminated sources they used, and the school was poorly attended since the kids were sick or walking all day to bring water home.
There was one child who took a special liking to me. She followed me around most of the day, and I held her a lot of the time while she twisted my hair and rubbed at my skin. She was six years old, but she looked about three and weighed what a two-year-old might.
I will never forget how her faced changed when she saw the clean water shooting from the pipe during the pump test. It was awe and curiosity with a quizzical skepticism. I tried to tell her that this was going to be her water, and I think she understood. She repeated “maji, maji”, every few minutes, and I tried to explain that we couldn’t drink the water quite yet, not until it was determined to be potable.
As soon as we got the go-ahead to taste the water, I filled up an empty bottle from our van and brought it back to her. I held her in my arms while she tipped the big bottle back and drank the whole thing in what seemed like a few seconds. And, when the bottle left her lips, her eyes met mine, and they sparkled with joy. I held her tighter and felt hot tears drip down my face.
It was at that moment that I knew my purpose was this. I opened my heart to the devastation and pain that not having access to water causes, and I set my mind to solving the problem and eliminating suffering, one baby girl at a time.
Since that first well in 2010, we have worked in over 65 communities and provided clean water to more than a quarter of a million people in Kenya and Tanzania. We are a team of scientists, nurses, CEOs, marketing professionals, and accountants. We work closely with (not for) communities, and we have already seen new schools built, new dorms at orphanages, new agriculture and commerce, and so many more healthy children and empowered women.
I’ve made quite a few sacrifices to build Well Aware. I gave up owning a home, I sold a car, I relied on family for help (a lot), and I learned to appreciate all things second-hand.
I’m now a single mom, and my daughter and I live in a small apartment while my team and I continue to grow Well Aware and Well Beyond to serve more and more people every year and develop new tech for the sector. I feel an incredible gratitude that I am able to be a part of the amazing group of people, and to be a piece of something that makes the world better. I also appreciate that my daughter will grow up knowing that, even though we live in a world where there is suffering from injustice and circumstance, there are also ways to make a difference and so many people who care. And, if she wants to be an attorney, that’s just fine, too!
Originally published on MariaShriver.com