In Malawi, No More Sharing Water With Goats

In my last post, I spoke about indicators for deforestation in Malawi. Today, I'll share one for the problem of attaining clean drinking water, then explain a cool invention I'm working on to address this issue.

Until recently, my mother spent over 700 hours every year just bringing our family clean water from the well. That's over two hours each day walking to the public water pump and hauling those buckets back home, sometimes even longer.

The work was hard and exhausting, but much better compared to our situation before. Until I was nine years old, we got all of our drinking water from the spring-fed marsh behind our house, something we called the dambo. The dambo was the only source of water for miles around, so everyone depended on it to live - including the goats and cows, who often relieved themselves while drinking. The women had to dip their buckets into the dirty water anyway, trying not to think about it. What choice did they have?

Because it was our only water source, the demand was very high. Women like my mother would wake up before the cock even crowed - around 4 a.m. - hoping to reach the dambo before the line stretched into the tall elephant grass. If you were late, you'd find yourself waiting for two hours as the African sun cooked you from above.

In the dry season, the dambo was only full of water in the morning, and by afternoon, all the women and pigs and goats had drunk it dry. If you were running late because your child was sick, or your husband needed you in the maize fields, you'd have to go without until the spring replenished itself overnight. In the wet season the dambo was always full, but dangerous. The heavy rains often flooded the latrines and washed waste and other garbage into into our water. My mother boiled our drinking water, but not everyone did this and became sick. Diarrhea was a frequent visitor to the villages during the rainy season, and cholera was always a concern.

One year my father managed to dig a well at our home, but it wasn't deep enough and often went dry. In 1997, the government finally came and drilled a borehole and installed a hand pump near the trading center by my home. Everyone was happy to have clean water, and not spend hours stepping through the black mud with their buckets. But the wait was still just as long. My mother woke up before the cock and set off in the darkness. She'd fill two buckets, take one home, then return for the other. Even when my sisters were strong enough to help, this still took over two hours (I was always in the fields helping my dad). A second pump was installed a few years later and reduced the distance required to travel, but even that pump had long lines throughout the day.

It was only after we survived the famine and I built my windmills did things change. After I was invited to the TED conference in 2007 to share my story, some generous people donated some money to improve my village. I dug a deep borehole, installed solar pumps, and piped water to six faucets throughout the village. It's the only piped running water for fifty miles, and if you visit now, you'll find no women waiting in lines.

It's now my dream to spread my good fortune to other villages in Africa, and I have a few ideas. Here at the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa, where I go to high school, I've started something called the Doers Club, where we work on inventions.

One of our projects (after we finish a solar-powered steam engine) is to develop a borehole drill that's simple enough for anyone to use. Modeled after a tobacco press, or a vice, it would function by turning a series of sectional screws into the ground using some gears and pulleys that make the job easier. It wouldn't require renting expensive machines or fuel. The water, of course, would be pumped by the ever-blowing wind.

If clean water exists beneath our own soil, under the same dirt floor we struggle on every day, we should not have to wait on the government or aid workers to arrive and grant us access. We Africans are strong, and a little bit of ground should not stop us. Clean water is our right, and our duty.