For the past three years, I've run the Chicago Marathon to help raise money for clean water in Kenya on behalf of World Vision. Last year, in the midst of my third marathon, I hit a wall—the one runners talk about around mile 20—where every fiber of my being cried out to stop and never do such a stupid thing again. I hate this so much; why am I doing this; I'm in so much pain … and so my thoughts spun for the next five miles. During that breakdown, one thought crystallized: I need to see with my own eyes where all this marathon running and fundraising leads.
Late last year, I asked Michael Chitwood, national director of Team World Vision (TWV), if he could help me on my quest to follow the money from my fundraising page to the field to see what difference running a marathon to raise money for clean water makes.
"Come to Africa, and I'll show you," he said.
Following the Money
So this past June, I boarded a plane for Durban, South Africa, with a team of 13 TWV runners for the first leg of our "follow-the-money" tour. This group of athletes I was traveling with was registered to run Comrades, the world's oldest, largest ultra-marathon—a daunting 54-mile uphill/downhill course depending on which year you run it. This was an "up" year, which meant runners would head out of Durban toward Pietermaritzburg, climbing through the South African countryside the entire way. Each TWV Comrades runner inspired hundreds of people back home to donate to the same clean water projects we had raised money for at the Chicago Marathon. All together, this little band of 13 hard-core runners raised more than $200,000, a record fundraising amount up to that point for a single TWV event.
Wendy Ploegstra, one of the runners I followed, says she decided to run Comrades both as a personal challenge (she has run 18 marathons since high school, and Comrades would push her to a new level), and because it provided a way for her to blend her passion for running with bringing water to people caught in a cycle of poverty (read more about Wendy's reasons for running in TCW article "How Far Would You Go").
After a day of recuperating from the aches and pains Ploegstra and her teammates earned from running Comrades, our group boarded a plane for Nairobi, Kenya. We then loaded into vans and made a six-hour trek into the Great Rift Valley, a beautiful but isolated region where roads are often impassable, and essentials of life are hard to come by.
Bartabwa, one of 60 World Vision Area Development Programs (ADP) throughout Kenya, was established in 2008. With a population of nearly 18,000, 70 percent of whom live below the poverty level—many on one dollar a day—World Vision classified this area as a hardship zone because of its rugged terrain, high temperatures, and limited infrastructure.
On a hill overlooking a massive retaining pond, I met with a group of six women who spearheaded the water committee for their community called Kombo Kaboon. With goats bleating and birds chirping in the background, the women eagerly shared their stories of life before and after clean water.
"Every day at 4 a.m., the women would wake up and begin their search for water," explained "Kogo," ("Grandma" in their native Kalenjin), the matriarch and spokesperson for the group. "We'd spend the first four or five hours fetching water. The girls had to help fetch water and haul firewood for cooking too. Many kids had to leave school from 10 a.m. until after lunchtime to find water. This meant their lessons suffered."
Unfortunately, local water sources are often contaminated, and drinking from them leads to continual stomach ailments and intestinal diseases. For children and vulnerable adults, unsafe water is the leading cause of sickness and death, and yet World Vision estimates the average cost to bring clean water is $50 per person—the amount we might pay for a night at the movies.
The women of Kombo Kaboon banded together to find their solution. They spent three days writing a grant proposal for a clean water project. The government denied their first request. Undaunted, Jane said they reworked the proposal and sent it in a second time. This time they were granted $10,000—better than nothing, but not nearly enough to fund a water project.
Thankfully, this is when World Vision showed up. After working extensively with the community to determine the correct scope and scale for a sustainable water project that would serve the greatest number of people, World Vision provided funds for the project, primarily from U.S. donors, and specifically money raised by runners from the Chicago Marathon.
So here I stood with a group of Kenyan women, looking out over a huge rain-filled pond where fresh water was filtered and flowed into a watering trough for the cattle and through separate taps for the people. Instead of walking miles each day for dirty water, these women could now walk just minutes to the taps that filtered water from the pond and fill their jugs. This was, in part, where the money I'd raised running my marathons had gone.
Having access to clean water has completely changed their lives. "Water restored our dignity," one woman said. "Before we had clean water, we couldn't participate in community gatherings. We had never bathed in clean water, and we knew our bodies and our clothes smelled bad." Lice and bacteria in their hair and clothes was a constant challenge.
"Now that we have water," the woman continued, "we can be part of community meetings. Our clothes are clean, and the lice are gone."
According to Kogo, there's been a radical drop in the number of stomach sicknesses because of hand washing. "We learned about boiling water and washing our hands, and this keeps us healthier. We hope to get rid of typhoid completely."
Rich Stearns, president of World Vision, refers to this education process on sanitation and hygiene as "software," the critical but less tangible aspect of successfully introducing clean water to a community.
With improved health for both parents and their children, I asked the women what they dream about next for their families and their community.
One woman, Feris, said, "I hope we can have water piped into our homes someday."
Another woman said she dreams that her friend who lives miles away and far from any clean water source will one day have access to clean water like her.
Thinking the women may have misunderstood my question, I told Jane that their dreams could be about anything—not just water.
She pulled her head back, and with a baffled expression asked, "What else is there?"
"Water is life for every person," she explained. "It's our first priority. Every good thing flows from water."
Embarrassed by my ignorance on this point (the longest I've ever gone without access to free-flowing water was five days when our power went out in a storm), I waved them on. "Please, keep going."
"She wants a cattle dip," Jane continued, translating each woman's vision for the future. A cattle dip is a walk-through bath of treated water, which helps prevent and kill any parasites on the livestock. Without the cattle dip, cows become infected, which taints their milk, and this in turns sickens the people.
As we talked, more women hiked up the hill to join us, even two elderly blind women who had walked for miles to be part of this conversation. "How many more are coming?" I asked. "They all are," said Jane. "The women in the village heard you were coming, and they wanted to share their story."
A lump swelled in my throat. Day after day for years on end these women had hauled water jugs on their backs. There was no distance too far that would keep them from providing this most basic necessity of life for their families. Their greatest dream was that everyone should have access to this life-giving water.
I was motivated to run marathons for these same reasons, although my efforts seemed paltry compared to their heroism. Nonetheless, on race day, there's always that stretch of the course when I curse and cry and wonder why I signed up to do such a horrible thing. The 26.2 miles feel like they might be too far to go to bring a cup of water in Christ's name.
In the final miles of my first marathon, my friend Anne was struggling with severe knee pain. Closing in on the finish line, I imagined an African woman carrying a jerry can on her back, struggling to finish that day's trek for water.
"Anne, keep running. Do it for that African mother who doesn't get to cross a finish line until she gets clean water. If she can haul water every day, we can finish this race."
Buoyed by this fresh vision for why we were running, Anne and I crossed the finish line together. At the Kombo Kaboon water pan project, I got to see with my own eyes the woman I imagined that day three years ago. She was Kogo telling of dreams realized already for some, but not yet for others.
Marian V. Liautaud is the editor of Today's Christian Woman and Church Law and Tax Resource for Christianity Today. Follow her on Twitter @MarianLiautaud.