Water is the earth's most precious resource. It holds all the power- to give life, to heal, to destroy. I've always respected this. Probably because I grew up in Southern California in the 80s, during a drought, surrounded by our largest body of water. People were fined for hosing down their sidewalks, and discouraged from watering their lawns, yet we played every weekend at the beach, the waves working their powerful magic as we rode and played. We collected "dirty water" - appropriate because it was literal run-off from the shower, pooling around your ankles, then pumped out through the window into a trash can outside, where it was later used to water the plants and grass. My chemistry teacher instructed us to never flush the toilet- if you wait long enough, he said, enough waste would accrue so that it would self flush. So, I grew up understanding water's value, by it's strength and scarcity.
In August, I met Dayana, a 12 year old girl who lives in El Salvador, in a refugee village of about 500 people. I met her because her mother and brother came to see the doctor at the church on top of the hill, a hill that their parents carry water about a half mile to their homes. This church is run by a couple that cares deeply for their community and lives in a nearby town. I went to this village as part of a larger mission trip to San Salvador this summer with my husband and son with a group from his school that has been going for 20 years to bring donations, doctors, and hope to this displaced community after a brutal civil war, lasting 12 years.
By the end of 1979 economic and political conditions were such that the country of El Salvador would see the coming decade consumed by Civil War. It was a conflict that lasted for 12 years and took the lives of an estimated 80,000 people. More than one million civilians were displaced. Due to forceful relocation or the destruction of their towns and villages over 550,000 people were forced into refugee camps. During the peace process, some people were lucky to receive plots of land. Of these camps scattered throughout the countryside, some have, more than 25 years later, become villages of their own.
Now, we wait by the side of the road in our van filled with volunteers, Paula, a doctor from San Salvador, Beck, a nurse and Rosalind, a chiropractor from Chicago, Anna-Kari, the pastor from Chicago who started this mission 20 years prior, Cleiton, a Salvadoran high schooler and aspiring medical student, who lives at the orphanage where we stayed, and a handful of us that just want to learn: MJ, Hope, my husband, Seth and and my son Charlie. “What are we doing,” I ask the pastor. “Waiting for Matias, the pastor of the church. He has to escort us in because of the gangs.” Oh. As we wait, AK points out the water supply for the village, a single pipe running water into a concrete tank at the base of the hill. “That’s where they have to gather their water.” When we see the pastor's sister, we follow her up the rocky dirt road about a half mile to the church on top of the hill; a path these families make each day with gallons of water on their shoulders to bring to their homes.
The homes are very simple and small. Made of concrete floors, metal corrugated roofs not quite meeting the hand made stone walls, open air kitchens powered by propane, some with large concrete cisterns for their washing. None have running water, or toilets, and few have electricity. The only flushing toilet in the entire village of 500 is at the church, and while it is a modern toilet with a handle, it only flushes when it is filled with water from a bucket, as there is no water intake.
It’s only in experience that I learn how to dress for outings in El Salvador- we were told to bring plenty of water to drink, 3 bottles per person, and to wear long pants to protect from the mosquitos and heat, but it’s brutally hot and humid, and the khaki pants I’m wearing are too thick, sticking to my legs in the humidity. As the doctoral teams sets up stations for seeing people, I survey the families that are waiting for us, over 90 families with their children, maybe 30-40 kids hanging out, and I open up the bag of stickers, pens, and stationery I’ve brought as gifts, and I’m mobbed by little hands grabbing in the bag. Again, a learning experience, next time, I will hand things out in a more organized fashion so that every kid gets a gift. I’m able to commandeer a bundle of lollipops I’ve brought, and in the last frantic minute, am able to hand out candy to some of the kids who were unable to get a gift in the first place.
Dayana is a quiet, watchful girl who sticks by my side all day, and we communicate with gestures and play. She wants a journal, and I feel terrible that all were snagged from my bag and i have none to give her. I find a box of markers in the church, and Hope and I teach the kids tic tac toe, and then make cootie catchers, finally using my limited spanish to write out the colors in corresponding marker color. Finally, something I can do. I can draw, play duck, duck, goose, (which we alter to the animals we know in spanish: pato, pato, pinguino) We run and play, and eventually Charlie gets bored passing out meds and joins us to play Mika (tag) and futball. Dayana asks me for water, but I’m out, we’ve already drank our 3 bottles, but I find a granola bar I’ve brought with me in my bag and her eyes widen in gratitude, as I hand it over, all the while thinking of the 5 gallon water bottles lined up back at the orphanage, and wish we’d brought one with us.
My face is flushed bright red from running and playing in the heat and humidity, and how I wish I could wash the sweat from my neck and chest, but I’ve drank all my water. Or even just wash my hands. I’ve coated my hands in santizer about 10 times today. All I want is a shower. That’s universal- all people deserve this dignity, to start our days fresh and clean. We want to present ourselves in the best possible way. I wonder how it must be for Dayana and her friends to get ready for school each morning, over a bucket of water, their toilets, outhouses.
I think how I take this basic need for granted at home, and how I don’t think about it as I make my coffee every morning, fill my glass with filtered water from the fridge, brush my teeth, or throw my clothes in the washer. How luxurious it is it is to be able to wash my hands with scented soap, to shower under a hot stream of clean, running water; and water my lawn just because I want it green. Individually, these everyday things would be enormous luxuries to the people of this village, and I wish this simple pleasures for the young girls I see.
And that’s what I’m left with, a perspective on the scarcity of water, shared by most of the world, reinforced when we get back to the orphanage and find that the water is turned off, an occurance that happens without warning and often, even in the city. We “shower” with a bucket of water kept on reserve for this very reason, and I am so relieved to put on my clean clothes and feel comfortable again. I am completely touched by the kindness and openness of the families I have met in El Salvador, and want to help. Now here is something I can do, help fundraise and give my own funds to help build the holding tanks, pumps, pipelines that have been planned out for this village, but they lack the funds to build.
Water would bring more sanitary conditions, better health and oral hygiene, and the comfort and conveniences that all people deserve. I’m excited to be part of a team that is helping bring water to this village and am donating 10% of this year’s sales of Sarah Drake Design directly to this project. I’m also excited to be working on a new product directly inspired by Dayana and the other young girls of this village and can’t wait to share more information with you as it develops.
There's plenty of water in the universe without life, but nowhere is there life without water.