A day in the life; Women at the Well

No sadness on show

The Drop Off

Its little things that often strike you in Malawi, like one morning, I dropped Mary off in Áras Kate at 7.15, with the intention to be in Lusangazi farm for the start of the day at 7.30.The morning was chilly as the sun waited to burst on the scene. As we bumped along the last half mile, we heard the usual Gogo Mary and Gogo Johnnie, waves and smiles everywhere as the creathures got their last scrub before school, with many donning their only presentable outfit which somehow or another would be meticulously clean, maybe threadbare but always clean. Turning in we saw the usual queue of women scrubbing buckets and pots with sand and waiting their turn for water at the pump, which by the way is a totally illegal structure, banned by every bye law and statute that the City Fathers could dream up, but because the city can’t supply clean water and to avoid any outbreak of cholera, they act as if it doesn’t exist, and of course these women don’t care about bye laws, just clean water. As the women wait in turn to lift the 25 litre containers, first on to the knee and then onto the head, they chat and help each other and go away smiling, only posing for the photo op, with a smile. They are the salt of the earth and are single mothers, abandoned mothers from 14 to 40, ladies of the night, forced by extreme necessity to risk their lives in order to feed their children and themselves and grannies with squads of dependants, all battered and abused by an accident of birth, the world, men, society and tradition. They struggle every day, with AIDS, alcoholism, hunger and pain and still they smile for a photo. I ask them are they stealing my water and they giggle yes!

The pump is a wonderful yoke, put in by DIT students at Easter 2009, at the wrong time of the year (the water table too high), re dug by the community in September, is perfectly free of all pollutants, treasured by all, it serves at least 500 families in the area as well as the school. It was never lined with bricks or fully completed; you would never get time as there is a constant queue of users. We get regular tests done on the water and it’s always perfect. Maybe it’s St Bridget; a favourite saint of mine, mind you I never asked, but maybe She’s on it!
I wondered on my, supposed to be, quick turnaround, how they cope, talk and laugh as they wait, how they survive, widows rearing their own children and those of their dead siblings, grannies rearing housefuls, in the midst of squalor and horrific conditions no matter where the economists or the social care specialists, decide the poverty line should be.
But here they have clean water, their children have a preschool and one good meal a day, many come to adult education classes, learn to knit, speak and write English, learn a bit of maths, the kind they need, a bit of health education. They love the art and the netball. Mary is working on hairdressing!!
It’s a miraculous start, a work in progress, an oasis and a lighthouse all in one, in the midst of desolation.
It costs about €400 per month to run, for the 11 staff and food for 250 and anyone else who comes along in need.
My day was mad as usual, working on a pump and piping to a tank which will hold about 50 cubic metres of water for irrigation, directing, advising, ranting, getting drenched twice, to the amusement of all, planning a hen house for 40 newly acquired laying pullets and whatever else came my way.

The Pick Up

A happy woman

<a I got back about 3.30, just to see if Mary wanted to meet the Senior area Chief, but I suppose I could have guessed; she was sitting on a tiny, pink, plastic stool with a little gathering of maybe 5 or 6 five year olds, reading, exchanging views and ideas on the stories they had read, completely oblivious to the sheer mayhem around them, with complete concentration and in a world of their own, they grasped every possible opportunity to learn
There was netball, football, outdoor and indoor classes, swings, seesaw and skipping in what appeared to me to be all in the same location, totally and wonderfully insane. All I could wonder was what would a little bureaucrat from the Health and Safety Authority say, or do or write. It was a truly magical feeling, a spiritual or as we call it a Sacramental moment, one that gets to your very soul, whatever that may be, a moment that’s repeated most days in this most neglected of places.
I thought of Kevin Costner’s film, Field of dreams, where the idea was that you build it and they will come; we built it and they come in droves!!

Nearly ready

At one end of the netball court, a little crowd were holding up the pole for the net, literally, it had fallen, but no one wanted to wait for the tools to come, so some of the supporters were called into action. With a short time out, Charity and Casca went into overdrive and the game was on again, with little delay. Netball is a serious business here, where given half a chance every woman will play. Bouncing boobs, child on back or hitched up chinche is no deterrent to getting a game. The crowd is always vocal, partisan and bigger than Lucan Sarsfields get on a good day, for a league match!!. For those magical moments of play, everyone seems transfigured and lifted out of their daily slavery, a field of dreams indeed. To set the scene, this is a court where the soil was levelled, the markings scratched with a hoe, the poles are blue gum and the baskets are bicycle rims nailed on to the poles, an invention of some crafty DIT students!!. Minimum cost, like 50cents for the poles and maximum enjoyment. (Since then the Feeneys have got into action, painting the poles). The little girls were playing netball without a net, interspersed with little boys playing football, or following a ball at least!!

Ciara and her students

Ciara’s little gang were reading as well, with some of the older boys explaining the stories in Tumbuka and all were obviously settled in for the evening. The classrooms were full of knitters, sewers, readers, mathematicians, adult classes and homework doers; there were even Amhráns and Bodhráns. all throwing shapes and taking breaks, this is Heaven, this is hell, anyone for the last few ices, says Christy Moore?. The knitters were doing their loops and learning English at the same time and simultaneously, Niamh was doing the story of 10, what an operator, Marie was doing matching with her brood. Such was the industry of everyone, that no one noticed the breastfeeding, the small boys peeing by the fence, or that there were enough babies there to fill Holles Street on a slack day. This was all happening in this slum/swamp area, with many of the outcasts of even Malawian society. So don’t let anyone tell you that the ills of the developing world can be solved by money: no, everything is about people, like Miriam Whittle, Elaine, Julie, Michelle, Gillian, Caroline, Chris, Miriam, Sharon ,Áine, Claire, Paula, Kate, Caitriona and Jane caring enough to spend a month with the poorest, walking their journey, visiting their houses, holding their babies, feeling their pain, smiling, waving, cuddling, teaching their children, showing family photos, taking and displaying picks, blowing bubbles while all the time, discovering their own potential and realising all they have to offer; at all times educating, inspiring and challenging.
This area of Salisbury Line has been lifted and energised, by building a small building, training some inspiring Malawian teachers and carers, many with little formal education, throwing in some unbelievable teachers and students from Ireland and elsewhere and a few bits of clothing for the kids, and simple bits for the school, stir the pot, get the City Assembly and the Chiefs on board and my God, has the place taken off. Wells for Zoe acts like a catalyst, while the active ingredients blast on.
This place belies its 16 month existence. It is an enchanting and endearing place to be, where one is surrounded by smiling faces, positive and powerful women, who haven’t even begun to realise their potential, where everyone is always so anxious to learn. It’s only the beginning. It has only two classrooms at the moment, but when the City fathers finally agree, we will add two extra classrooms a kitchen and a store, funded by a most generous friend. Things can only get better. A new netball court and play amenities will follow on new lands designated by city. The future will see a new model Primary and the benefits this will bring. All this will be supported by Wells for Zoe as part of a Board of Trustees, with the City Assembly, The Chiefs and the Local Development Group, a true Community project.

It's a hard life for girls

But back to where I began, the well. In the midst of all the bedlam of the day the caravan of water carriers continued, the faces in the late afternoon had changed, girls now replaced many of the mothers and Gogos, but the train went on, unabated.

Happy as usual

I felt that maybe we were back in Biblical times, and the story of the Woman at the Well. The Lord would have his work cut out here to find one woman alone, such was the activity around our well. His Parable might have been altogether different here.
For anyone with an interest, this is a favourite story of mine
It’s from Samaria 2000 years ago and tells of this woman at the well: she had married five men. And the man that she lived with now was not her husband.
Like the women of Salisbury Line, this Samaritan woman was one who had suffered from ignorance of her worth. Perhaps, she just didn’t have any other way to survive, and had to depend on a man who wouldn’t even marry her, she had to make compromises.
I’d say many of my morning women are doing just that and I love them for it. They haven’t a sin among them.


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