Alongside a pond in Rwanda once roamed the legendary “Big Five” — lions, leopards, rhinoceros, elephants, and Cape buffalo. But after the 1994 genocide, their home, Rwanda’s Akagera National Park, was sliced in half to make room for returning refugees. The animals were relocated east toward Tanzania to protect them from poaching. Creatures small but even more deadly — bloodsucking parasites, roundworms, and malaria-spreading mosquitoes — now have dominion.
Eight-year-old Esther Gisubizo hates the pond. And she’s reminded daily of her distaste for it — the dirty swamp is her family’s only source of water. Esther and her five sisters, ages 6 to 17, make the trek to the pond several times a day to collect water. They live with their parents, Augustin Hakizimana, 45, and Olive Nirere, 38, in Gatsibo district, a two-hour drive northeast from Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. After the genocide, Augustin and Olive moved back to the district — Olive from refuge in Tanzania and Augustin from the Democratic Republic of the Congo where, as a soldier, he’d lost a finger and suffered a serious bullet wound to the leg.
The family lives in a small, two-room house near the pond, and operate a little shop on the side of the road where they sell passers-by tea and mandazi — small, round doughnuts. At night, they crowd into the house to sleep. The doughnut shop becomes a bedroom.
It’s stagnant water. It doesn’t flow. Feces are in it. When you drink, you know what’s in it.—Augustin, Esther's father
A crowded evening becomes a crowded morning at the pond, which swells and shrinks according to the season but never dries up because of a dam that now feeds it. “People come from far away on their bicycles,” says Augustin. “There’s no fighting, just a lot of traffic.”
Thousands of people from seven nearby villages trek down the path carrying yellow jerrycans to fill, competing with herds of drinking and defecating cattle. “It’s stagnant water,” says Augustin. “It doesn’t flow. Feces are in it. When you drink, you know what’s in it.”
The cattle lift their shiny black heads at the sound of the water bowsers that come to the pond to pump water they’ll use to mix cement for road and new construction. The advent of electricity in some parts of the district has brought opportunity, creating even more competition for water already in scarce supply.
A wave of fear
“Sometimes we go in the dark in the morning,” says Esther’s 11-year-old sister, Sandrine. The sisters hold hands when they do that — summoning courage to make the trek, each way the length of a football field. Esther and her sisters dread the multiple trips to collect enough water — often six per day.
The pond is brown and swampy. “We are scared to drink the water,” says Irene, 9. “We know there are worms in it.” The snakes scare her, too. “You can see them swimming in the water,” she says.
Esther has suffered the most physical discomfort due to the pond. She was bitten by a bloodsucking parasite that attached itself to her ankle as she collected water one day. “It was very painful,” she says. “She’s usually the funniest and most vigorous of my daughters,” says her father.
But Esther is quiet. Lifeless.
She has malaria, and her skin itches. The pond is so dirty that the girls get scabies from washing in it, and they can never truly be clean. They won’t change clothes after collecting water either if there are no clean clothes to wear. “Sometimes I stay wet,” says Sandrine. “Sometimes I shiver.” Olive shakes her head at the wretchedness of the situation. She too has malaria, her face shiny and countenance weary. “Do we have any choice?” she asks. “What we do is out of desperation.”
The pond attracts those desperate for water, drawing in those who gather the vital element. Two boys wade out to fetch water, believing that the farther out one wades, the cleaner the water will be. “Please come back,” yells an older woman from the bank. “You may drown.”
Everyone knows she’s thinking of Julius.
A spark extinguished
Julius Tugume was a star. “He was handsome and energetic,” says his aunt, Francisca Mukandamutsa. Francisca, a seamstress, adopted Julius when he was 6. “I took him in to give him a chance,” she says. Julius’ father had died of HIV, and his mother, Francisca’s sister, was unable to care for him. Francisca brought him home after his father’s funeral, and the little boy thrived.
“His marks were above distinction,” says Edward Sakure Ndahiro, the headmaster of Bihinga School, where Julius attended. “He was a genius.” The 17-year-old had just taken the national exams, scoring 82 percent, a mark so high that when the headmaster reveals the score, one can hear the sharp, surprised intake of his listeners’ breath.
Julius never knew his score. The test results came back after he drowned in the pond. His best friend, Desire Zigirinshuti, 17, was there on that day in November 2017. The two had been inseparable. “If you ever wanted to know where I was — just find Julius,” says Desire. That day, the boys went to the pond to collect water, Julius went out too far. The pond has a muddy bottom with deep holes. “We didn’t swim, so we couldn’t save him,” he says.
The family lost a good boy, the school lost, the country lost.—Edward, Bihinga School headmaster
“We were very close,” says Julius’ friend, Justin, 15. “He always encouraged me to read. He had a lot of ideas. If he had lived, he would be a dignified person who loves people.” His friend Elise, also 15, adds,
“He used to study hard. He was brighter than all of us. He used to coach us.”
Francisca learned late on that terrible afternoon that Julius had drowned. She was devastated. His friends were devastated. “On his burial date,” she says, “those kids cried until their last breath.” His headmaster, Edward, still grieves. “The family lost a good boy, the school lost, the country lost,” he says.
A deluge of maladies
Families, schools, and countries suffer when people don’t have access to clean water. At the nearby Bihinga Health Center, Patient Munezero, 33, supervises a center with a packed waiting room — mostly women and children wrapped in scarves and clothes to keep warm on a rainy day. The center serves 42,000 people, and Patient says it is always busy. Dirty water is to blame. Seventy percent of the patients have water-related illnesses.
“First of all,” says Patient, “lack of water affects the physical condition of the body. When people don’t have enough water for drinking, they can become dehydrated. That can even cause death.” And when they do drink the water, it’s just as bad. “People get sick with diarrhea, digestive disorders, typhoid, [and] intestinal worms,” he says.
Patient says the snail that bit Esther’s ankle usually bites between the toes or the sole of the foot. “It’s painful,” he says. “If you don’t pull it off, it keeps burrowing to find blood.” Then surgery is required.
From June through September, the health center’s tanks run dry so staff must collect water from the pond — the very source Patient warns people about. “What else can we do?” he asks. “Where else can we go? You can’t have a maternity ward without water.”
A surge of hope
You can’t have a thriving nation without water either. Right now, nearly 6 million of Rwanda’s 11 million people lack access to safe water. That’s why World Vision is thinking big and working with the government to bring clean water to all of Rwanda’s people by 2022 — people like Esther.
It’s an ambitious goal, but it’s attainable for three reasons. First: size. Rwanda is densely populated, but small. One can drive around the country in just a day. Second: scale, as World Vision is the leading nongovernmental provider of clean water in the developing world. And third, there is sustainability.
World Vision organizes communities to advocate for water issues and handle operation and maintenance of the water system so the water keeps flowing after World Vision leaves.
We lost Julius, but if World Vision would do something so that another child like Julius would not die, I will praise God for that.—Francisca, Julius' aunt
Progress has moved quickly since 2012 when World Vision started its water, sanitation, and hygiene program in Rwanda, installing pipelines to serve thousands of people at a time. Already, more than 300,000 Rwandans have clean water and access to improved sanitation. Another 130,000 have installed hand-washing facilities and improved latrines as a result of World Vision’s behavior change campaigns.
World Vision has the full support of the government to meet its big goals that will serve children like Esther. “Your goals are our goals,” says Prime Minister Edouard Ngirento. “We are working together in a good manner.”
“We lost Julius, but if World Vision would do something so that another child like Julius would not die, I will praise God for that,” says Francisca.
It’s not too late for Esther and her sisters. But their need for clean water is now even more of a priority. In August 2018, Augustin and Olive separated after 18 years of marriage, leaving Olive a single mother. She says their marriage disintegrated after years of strife caused by his drinking. An already challenging life just became even more difficult for the shopkeeper and her six daughters, who are fighting for survival in a small, two-room house alongside a pond in Rwanda.
What you can do
- Learn more about clean water and how you can be part of the movement to end the global water crisis by 2030.
- Join us in praying that more and more communities would have clean water access, and thank God for the access to clean water gained by this community.
- Walk or run the Global 6K for Water on May 4, 2019, to provide life-changing clean water to one person in need. You’ll walk or run with the picture of the child receiving clean water through World Vision’s water projects.
- Give a monthly gift to provide clean water to communities lacking it. Your ongoing gift creates lasting change in a community.
Ange Gusenga of World Vision’s staff in Rwanda and Jane Sutton-Redner of World Vision’s staff in the United States contributed to this article.