In Africa with ‘Father Water’
A Chico attorney’s effort to bring clean, safe drinking water to Tanzanian villages
About four years ago, Chico resident Ron Reed was in the southern highlands of Tanzania, helping to fund a school-library-building project, when he learned of another, more serious need in the local villages. At one point the former builder was called on to help mend a water pump, and he saw how much the tool meant to people.
Thousands of Tanzanian villages don’t have wells providing clean, safe drinking water. Using the nearest river, spring, still pond or water hole is the only option. These sources are often the only water source for cattle and wild animals, too, which leads to fecal contamination, besides any pollution from mud, silt or trash dumped upstream. Nearby pit latrines also present a contamination problem via adjoining waterways and soil.
Millions of villagers across Africa have to embark on the task of collecting water at least once a day from far-away sources that often are neither clean nor reliable. They are highly susceptible to such horrific illnesses as cholera, polio, typhoid and dysentery.
After returning to Chico, Reed decided he would do something about Tanzania’s critical lack of wells, and set about a plan that would go some way toward addressing the problem.
Reed had retired as a builder in his 40s, but realizing the quiet life was not for him, he earned a law degree at the age of 50. He continues to work, at the age of 74, as a Juvenile Court public defender.
The attorney set about to fund 40 water wells over a two-year period in the Kilolo district of southern Tanzania, using local young people as laborers. Named the Kilolo Star Water Project, the effort will cost $100,000 and will receive no funding help from central government or any local authority.
Reed has shipped over materials unavailable in Tanzania, has designed and built his own drill rig at home, and has full support from Kilolo’s local council. All of it is funded with the money he made as a builder.
“I retired at first and then learned that’s not what life’s all about,” Reed said. “People here [in the United States] are so concerned about accumulated material. I heard the Africans say when I was over there, ‘Life is about giving, not getting,’ and I thought that was true.”
Well-drilling is expensive for villagers with low to no incomes, and people often lack the knowledge needed to drill correctly and to realize the water they’re presently using is hugely unhealthful. It can be hard to change adults’ lifetime habits if they have always visited the local river for their water.
Many women—because they are far more likely to collect water than men—see the task as a social event and a means to get away from the housework and their husbands for a short time every day. Government well-drilling programs are also costly and few and far between.
Reed began training with sanitation and safe-water campaign group Lifewater International. He researched the problem and paid visits to water wells in Texas and Idaho to understand well-drilling science.
He designed and built three drill rigs with help from two other Chico residents over a period of six months. The men—Reed, his son Jordan, and welder Rafael Diaz—worked on them during evenings and weekends. Reed then got down to organizing training for the 20 workers he would employ to construct all 40 wells.
Reed went to the Tanzanian hilltop town of Iringa, a place where he had previously stayed, and visited locally run charity IDYDC—Iringa Development of Youth, Disabled and Child Care—that provides vocational training for people with disabilities and those orphaned by AIDS.
“I went and asked them to pick me 10 workers,” Reed said. “I said I wanted girls as well as boys, but this was a radical request. I was told girls couldn’t do manual work, but of course they’re very skilled. We selected people who we thought would be interested in doing it and who we thought would succeed. For many of them, it was the first money they’d ever earned.”
Reed organized a two-week-long course to teach the workers well-drilling theory. Later, he picked 10 more students, which brought his total up to 20 workers. They were then divided into three groups. A chief well driller was appointed to take charge of the operation at each location and ensure they reached their target. Eighty-four villages in the district, in total, will soon benefit from good water.
“We met with the local council’s regional commissioner in the beginning, who welcomed us and offered us cooperation. They met with village elders to spread the word and generate support,” Reed said.
He reached an agreement with local officials over which villages should benefit and a set of conditions for installation and maintenance. These included locals helping with construction, providing security for the equipment, and paying $25 per month to IDYDC, which will monitor and maintain the wells.
One condition—that locals provide shelter and food for workers—was taken almost as an insult, however. It’s the cultural norm to provide accommodation for guests without asking, Reed explained.
The maintenance provisions are especially important. Thousands of pumps installed in Africa by non-governmental organizations aren’t properly maintained and are regularly abandoned once broken, with no money or contacts at hand to fix them.
“Ideally, pump monitors will be experts in hygiene,” Reed said. “For example, you can have clean water out of a pump, but using a dirty bucket will contaminate it. Every villager will pay some money toward the well, which will mean it belongs to them and they’ll take care of it. The district commissioner came up with this idea, which they’ve said they will impose.”
For identification purposes, all the wells—16 have been completed so far—will be named after people who have played important roles getting the wells constructed. Plaques are put on the bases of the pumps honoring those who contributed their energy to the project, as opposed to their money. The first Kilolo well has been named after the first director of IDYDC, who died last November after a battle with AIDS.
Reed, who has earned himself the Swahili nickname “Baba Maji,” which means “Father Water,” is also working on a booklet that will include a short history of all of the wells’ progress, the problems encountered and the workers involved. These will later be presented to everyone who played a part.
After several months back in Chico, Reed returned to Tanzania for a three-week visit last Saturday, Oct. 18, accompanied by his son Jordan. He makes these check-up visits about three times a year, sometimes to solve specific problems but always to make sure the money is being collected and the wells maintained.
This time the Reeds are dealing with a broken well bit, a piece of which has become lodged in a well. As Reed put it, they’re taking special equipment with them so they can “go fishing” to remove the broken piece from the well.
Reed is philosophical about his work. “My wife and I thought to ourselves, ‘One of these days we’re going to have to do something with our money.’ First I was going to build libraries, but then I thought, no, water wells.
“I think you should die broke. Money has no value until it’s spent. You save it until old age, and one day there comes a time when you’ve arrived at that point. This has all fit together at the right time for me. To see young people drilling wells and the rigs working is a reward. To see the project come together and know it’s an unselfish thing is very satisfying.”
And the employees are content, too. Castor Sanguya, from the Tanzanian capital city of Dar Es Salaam, manages the project while Reed is in Chico, and says what he’s doing is wonderful.
“People really appreciate what is being done here,” Sanguya said. “They’re so interested in the project and have come up to us when we’ve been working and said, ‘When are you going to build a well for us? We’ll provide food and shelter for you!’
“I hope to build over 40 wells. I’m very happy and proud to be a Kilolo Star. We don’t have anything to give Mr. Reed, but we thank him for all he’s doing for us.”
Twenty-one-year-old Ernesta Moto, one of the two women working at the project, has been inspired by her training and wants to take her new career as a well-driller as far as she can.
“I feel so happy to be involved,” she said. “We’re providing water, giving people life and employment. Before this I was training to be a seamstress. I much prefer this. I really want to be a well-driller.”
Reed is optimistic that with Sanguya’s direction, they will reach their two-year target and perhaps go on to provide their workers with further education, including how to build the well rigs themselves—a skill they can then pass on to others.
“If you start something and you’re determined, then it’s going to work,” he said. “You say to yourself, ‘OK, things will go wrong and there will be obstacles.’ But you see them as a challenge.
“Bore holes can change a whole area. If you dig deep enough, the water will always be safe to drink.”