1000 is a big number

Nine million bicycles

Katie Melua is on:
There are nine million bicycles in Beijing,
That’s a fact.
We are twelve billion light years from the edge
That’s a guess.
There are six billion people in the world
More or less
And it makes me feel quite small.

Most times I hear this song it just sticks in my head for hours, particularly the line And it makes me feel quite small.
But today I got to thinking of the size of the numbers and even though I am a mathematician, numbers, like millions and trillions scare me as they seem so out of scale from our day to day existence.
Our work in Malawi is very much in scale, like the power of one; one person, one pump, one village, one euro.
So when I say that almost one billion people don’t have access to clean water, I find the number incomprehensible, frightening, and unrelated to what we do in remote rural villages, miles and centuries from Lucan.
I suppose one could hide behind the numbers and say I can do nothing, it’s a waste of time or it’s like a drop in the ocean, or like Bishop Desmond Tutu believes, the ocean is made up of many tiny drops, so get on with it. We decided to go for the second option and continue making our miniscule contributions.
On Thursday last I looked at the face of an old gogo outside our pump factory in Mzuzu, I realised that she was another one for our list. She was well dressed, weather beaten and had a lovely handbag. She wanted a pump. She spoke to William in Tumbuka and William said to me we have to do something, it’s not far. All three of us hopped in the jeep only to find that after 17km (mostly deciding where the road was!!)we found ourselves walking, no, running behind this fragile old lady holding her handbag way out in front of her.
She showed us the river where 16 villages were getting their water. A fast running river of grey water, the river of death, I now call it.
By the time we got there we had attracted a bit of a following, we discussed what could be done and agreed a location for a new well, which would be the first one in the area
I had the video camera with me and suggested to William that he do a little interview, with Mama, but as he went on, the number forty one kept coming up (when speaking Tumbuka they give their numbers in English). I stopped recording and asked William about 41 and with his usual laugh he said that’s why we’re here, forty one people from the villages are in Hospital with cholera, and some have died.William worked all weekend, organised the bricks, sand and manpower and we put in the new pump on Monday, amid songs dances and prayers, always prayers.
Now that’s a real number;
41, and when combine with 1 gogo and 17 km, I can cope.
Not totally convinced that her figures were correct, I visited the Chief Medical Officer at St John’s Hospital (formerly run by the Medical Missionaries of Mary): a meeting hastily arranged by Harisen.
This man had a huge welcome, and even though his clinic was full, he brought us to his office, did a bit of tidying, sat down and said you are the pump people. He verified the figures and told us the Hospital was over run with cholera cases, BUT he said I have a great story for you.
You know we run an outreach clinic in an area called Doroba; In 2007 we had 143 cases of Cholera ad 6 people died, In 2008 we had 6 cases and no death. This year we had no case. His information from the clinic is that in late 2007 we installed 3 pumps and more in 2008 and 2009.
Standing in amazement I asked could the pumps have anything to do with it and he said EVERYTHING. He continued; if people don’t have a protected source of water, when the heavy rains come, everything is washed into the drinking water sources, the water becomes polluted and Cholera, and Diarrhoea result. He continued; Diarrhoea is a real killer and Malaria of course. Keep building the pumps, that’s a great solution…I gave him another number as we rushed out; it only costs1 euro to give each person water. So sad he said as he returned to his overflowing waiting room, considering that talking to us for 10 minutes was worth while.

We cope with these kind of numbers each day: not so daunting after all.
Harisen, William and Duncan are working on fitting more pumps in the area, where well in excess of 1000 people did not have access to clean water.
In my terms that’s a really big number.


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