Traveling at the Speed of Life

Too often, I speed through stories of impact and of personal transformation. Maybe it’s an occupational hazard in my work and my drive to “get everything done.”  In the process, I miss the real story, of struggle, of aspirations, hopes, dreams and fervent prayers.  Like those times when a long lost friend says– as one did to me last month at my 40th high school reunion– ” I’ve been sober for 27 years!” We’re so busy keeping the conversation going, keeping things cordial, bouncing from conversation to conversation, that we can’t begin to plumb the depths of the story, of the personal victories and failures and the daily struggles behind the factoid.
While driving to Phoenix last weekend, I wanted to demonstrate to my wife Janet how Siri, the “personal assistant” voice on my iPhone, could even read emails aloud to me while I’m driving. So I opened a random email for Siri to read. It was from a colleague, and in it he was forwarding a thank-you letter from an African village leader about the impact of clean water on her village.
Siri reads quickly and efficiently.  As we sped down the freeway, we happily enjoyed Siri’s speedy recitation of the impact that water, now both near and clear, was having on the communities’ families.

One of Siri’s little quirks is that she keeps reading even the sign-off information at the end of an email if you don’t stop “her”. And so it was that Siri read even the sign-off details from this letter… the “stuff” I rarely even skim.

But in this case, those details made us slam on the brakes of our minds.

It turns out this thank-you was from the very same village where Janet and I had visited a couple of years ago to see their then-new water well.  Janet even worked the handpump.  And we’d a powerful encounter with the women there, which I’ve written about previously.  This was the village that felt so isolated that they renamed themselves, choosing the name of the furthest place they could think of in the world: California, or “Kalivonia” in their phonetic spelling of it…

Dear World Vision,

Thank you for wiping our tears!

It was like a dream when we finally got water in our village. We always walked about 4 kilometers to the nearest source of water from our village. We had suffered for a long time and like the children of Israel when they were in Egypt,  God heard our cry and had mercy on us by sending World Vision to support us to dig a well in our community.

From this day, our problems have become less. First, we had clean water nearby, and then we began using it to water our vegetables in our kitchen gardens.

Our living conditions also began to change for the better. We started earning some income from the sale of our vegetables. The health of our children also improved because of the clean water and nutritional foods. We also learnt the importance of good hygiene and sanitation and we practice it because we can easily get adequate water in our homes.

The committee and a few other members were trained on how to maintain the pump. Water from the well is sold to members at a shilling for every 20 liters [roughly a penny for 5 gallons]. The proceeds from the sale are used to maintain the pump. Members have used surplus income from the project to initiate other income generating projects and today the members have 28 goats.

We members of the project have also earned 3,000 shillings from the sale of vegetables (tomatoes, kales and spinach) that we water from the well. We hope that by the end of this year, we will be able to earn more than 20,000 shillings from the sale of vegetables. Our desire is to buy a generator to pump water from the well and construct a storage tank.

We thank World Vision for the love for us. May God Bless you.

Elizabeth Ndugu Joseph
Ngiluni-Kalivonia Water project in Kenya


Janet and I promptly re-read the letter, at the speed it deserved.  It was lovely to be reminded about all the impacts and benefits which have been brought about because of clean water, and to know that these are now even expanding into economic benefits.  We’d seen the humble kitchen gardens which had been recently cultivated right near the well.  At that time, they were mostly aspirations—their seeds and their hopes had been planted and begun to sprout, now bringing in an expanding harvest.
But the encounter which seared our minds most indelibly that day is neatly tucked away in Elizabeth’s phrase above, “We also learnt the importance of good hygiene and sanitation and we practice it because we can easily get adequate water in our homes.” 
Here’s what I wrote two years ago early the morning after our visit:
Our group tried out the handpump and then we all adjourned for warm soda under a tree, where they told us more about the impact which the well has had. That’s when things got personal.  One woman reported happily that now her children are clean, because she has enough water to bathe them.  My mind flashed to a recent recounting of a woman who said that her top personal “dream” is to be able to take a bath at home.  Just then, a very brave women chimed in, and we heard the translation amid muffled snickers and giggles from others in the crowd. “Before the well, when a man and a woman would come together as a couple, they were not able to wash afterwards.”  Her words were shocking in their obvious meaning and profoundly human practicality, yet without any salacious subtext. I felt extremely honored that she would make such an intimate comment to seeming strangers…though of course World Vision is no stranger here.
After more praying, singing and dancing we bounced off to our next stop. But that night over dinner we each spoke of our most powerful image or memory from the day, and I found myself bringing up this woman’s comment. Lucy, a Kenyan woman on our staff who’d also grown up “in the bush”, commented, “Yes, it was very brave of her to speak so frankly. But what she didn’t say, yet was really implying behind the words, was that if the woman can’t be clean, then her husband is likely to lose interest and go into town to find ‘girls’.”
After you’ve taken that in, imagine with me that every sentence in Elizabeth’s letter is just as pregnant with meaning and human practicalities as the one about good hygiene.  It might be worthy of a second, slower reading. 
Personally, I’ve concluded that, though I still love Siri, and freeway speeds, in matters of the heart it’s wiser to take my foot of the pedal and travel at the speed of the human heart.

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