Some people throw coins into a well to make a wish.
For a small community in Ethiopia, their wish came true with the well itself.
Tigist still gets up before sunrise. Her hands find the two empty plastic containers just inside the doorway. The cock, hens and chickens follow her into the yard. As she walks through the village, her friends turn up out of the darkness and already they are talking. They are young, the water containers are still light, and the first sunbeams lighten up the open grassy field at the centre of the village.
For a moment Tigist lets her thoughts wander across the field and follow the footpath that continues towards the east, out of the village, an hour, two, on bare feet. It has been a while since the last rains. Is there still water in the brook, or do they have to walk even further to find running water?
Tigist knows that the still, dirty water can make them all sick. Diarrhoea drains the body of nutrients and fluids, and she knows well what that means. They need more water. Often she has to take one more trip while the other girls are in school.
Tigist knows that education is the road to a better life. But she is on her way to fetch water again, two hours each way, and her legs hurt, her back, shoulders and arms. She almost drops the water containers, and she has to put them down for a moment to change her grip. The shadows lengthen, the silence is threatening.
Tigist knows that girls risk rape when they go to fetch water. She is fifteen and she knows that the eternal hunt for clean water is her fate, right until the day when she gets a daughter old enough to take over.
Women hold up half the sky, the elders say. Tigist knows how much half a sky weighs.
–Tigist! Are you coming?
Tigist walks the last metres to the well and puts down her water containers at the end of a long row of plastic containers. The women have gathered in the shade of a tree while they wait for the leader of the water committee. Those minutes queuing up for water have become one of the highlights of their day.
Tigist remembers well the day the giant drilling rig arrived in the village, a little over a year ago. The noise was deafening and the ground shook. The workers were shouting to be heard, and some of the youngest children cried from fear. Seeing the drill disappear into the ground, forty, fifty, sixty meters, she began to feel faint-hearted. But all of a sudden water was squirting out of the borehole and everyone there cheered. Over the next few days, the well was constructed, a hand pump installed and a fence set up. And today it stands there, this remarkably simple contraption which has transformed so many lives.
The leader of the water committee comes and opens the gate to the well. The lock is made of a used slipper, but everyone respects the rules. The well is open twice a day, and a member of the water committee must always be present when the pump is in use. Every family pays a monthly fee of two birr to get water from the well. In a society where families are struggling to be self-sufficient, the eight cents is a huge cost, but the fees are meant to cover maintenance and repairs.
To begin with, some people found it strange that a majority of the water committee members were women, but Tigist found it completely natural. Women have always been fetching water! The exception is her father Birhanu. He was elected on the committee as a mechanic, because he is an expert in fixing things and making sure everything works properly. Almost every night he follows her to the well to check that everything is ok, and her little brothers Tsegaye and Benyam follow him.
It is nice to get help carrying the water, even though it is just a couple of minutes’ walk.
–Tigist! I can help you!
Little brother Tsegaye comes running across the field right when it is Tigist’s turn to use the water pump. He uses all his might to pull the long iron rod, and Tigist makes sure all the water gets into the water containers. Then they take one full container each and stroll back to the hut, where their mother Almaze has prepared breakfast.
–Remember to put on your shoes, Tigist!
Shoes are a luxury, and are only used at school and in church. Tigist washes her feet carefully before putting on her shoes. Today she will attend the morning shift at school, while Tsegaye will follow Birhanu to help him tend the maize field until his school shift begins in the afternoon.
With an upbringing where fetching water has taken large parts of the day, Tigist is still behind in school. But after one year with the new well, she is already well on her way to catch up on lost time. She spends several hours doing her homework after school. When Almaze was her age, Tigist had already been born, so she doesn’t get much help with her school work. But her parents make sure she gets all the time she needs. They are proud of her and determined to do what they can to make sure she gets an education. They have agreed she should become a doctor, but Tigist dreams of becoming a teacher.
In other places around the world, people throw coins into the well to make their wishes come true. But for Tigist, the well in itself is a dream. The well saves her several hours of hard work every single day. The well keeps her unthirsty, clean and healthy. The well gives her time to learn.
Tigist still carries water, and she still dreams of a better life for herself and the family she will one day have. The well does not mean an end to poverty. Tigist knows there is still a long way to go. But the well has given her a way out. Tigist still walks, but her steps are lighter.