Where the Streets Have No Name – and the Kids Don’t Either

My mom has a picture of me at 3 years old, climbing awkwardly into a small puddle of water I had found, with a big excited smile on my face. The prophetic caption comments, “If there is water to play in, Bradley will find it.”

One summer in undergrad I worked in rural Ethiopia. My degree required several months of “practical experience” and an internship at a consulting firm sounded painfully boring. I wanted to know if water-technologies-for-the-developing-world was a field I would like to work in, so I spent four months with a large Ethiopian church that had a number of water projects around the country. I lived with a team of 6 Ethiopian men in a mud hut, drilling wells in areas where most people had never seen a white guy before.

The drill team was a family, and I was welcomed right in. We drilled wells all over the countryside, we were guests in many homes, we played soccer with hundreds of kids, and at the end of the summer I was a groomsman at a team member’s wedding, and I learned to slaughter, butcher, and roast a fatted goat for my farewell party. Becoming a part of this community and seeing my neighbors’ great, silent suffering be alleviated by clean water was a completely life-changing experience.

Since then I have worked in Uganda, Haiti, Senegal, Dominican Republic, Kenya, and the Philippines. I’ve learned that there are over a billion people with no safe water, and several million kids die every year from easily preventable waterborne diseases. Imagine having diarrhea so bad that you die. Every trip I take I am completely blown away by this extreme suffering, and by the profound difference that safe water makes in people’s lives.

I worked for years with a charity called Water School, which teaches children and families to clean their own drinking water. Water School’s projects reduce waterborne disease by 40-80% with education alone — just teaching kids and their families. I love this organization because with minimal resources Water School empowers the poorest of people to improve their own health drastically and permanently. In fact, once they reach a tipping point in a given region, the Water School Program spreads organically, and they can step out of the picture and begin anew somewhere else. It can be so satisfying to work yourself out of a job.

I write this from the Miami airport, where I am passing the night before an early flight to Haiti. In a few hours I will once again go through the heartbreaking contrast of leaving a place where storefront mannequins are so skinny you can see their ribs, because that’s desirable, and arriving in a place where children are so skinny you can see their ribs, because they don’t have enough food. Sometimes this makes me sooo angry; sometimes it makes me feel hopeless.

But it is not hopeless. The recent cholera epidemic in Haiti skipped over the Water School communities, because the people were protected from bad water. A prominent Haitian doctor told us that if we had started teaching there five years ago the outbreak wouldn’t have taken hold in the first place. And thats the ultimate goal to develop models that are truly effective in communities, and replicate them so this suffering can be avoided in the future.

There is a moment when certain wells are nearly complete that the water trapped under bedrock is released, and it rushes up and geysers itself high into the air. Just before this happens I like to step back and watch the community members as they see “water from the rock” for the first time. It is an instant transition from scarcity to abundance. The significance of this change – from having to haul heavy heavy water many kilometers from a dirty source, and then getting sick from it; watching their children die from it, to now: seeing a column of pure, healthy, ancient water shoot out of the ground – it is a profound thing to watch, especially on faces of the elders.

Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, is “Where the Streets Have No Name” from the U2 song. But what Bono perhaps didn’t know is that much of Ethiopia is Where the Kids Have No Name. Children are not given names until they are one or two or five years old, because their parents know they might succumb to waterborne disease in their infancy. And now these kids – who may have never seen this much water in their lives – witness a water volcano in their neighborhood! This sight stills them for a few seconds          …and then they break into a party, satiating their oh-so-appropriate gut desire to get soaked.

When I see this all the complexities of international development and social entrepreneurship fall away. These are the moments we live for.

Bradley Pierik