North State Voices: Thirst and Thanksgiving


POSTED: 11/28/2013 01:29:43 AM PST

It is June 2007, and my legs are sweating under my long skirt, courtesy of the hot African sun.

It is the wet season in Malawi, but the grass is dry. There have been three droughts here in the past 10 years.

Her name is Monica, and she looks at my 17-year-old face as a Malawian man translates her words into broken English. She has led me so we could gather water.

Before us is a small pool of gray water, no more than 6 feet across. A young girl is squatting in the inches of water at the edge of the shallow pool, washing her garments. Cattle are crossing the small feeding stream up ahead. One cow pees as it tramples slowly across the water, its feet churning the mud.

And we dip our containers into the shallow water to fill them.

Malawi water 2

The man translating tells me not to drink any of this. That there is clean water for me back at my team’s vehicle. That it will make me very sick. So I have to ask: “Does it make you sick?”

He says it does, but it’s OK. They live with it. It’s only the young and the old that they worry about.

Monica asks what we are saying. When told, she responds, telling me, yes, do not drink the water. “Many in our village have died from it,” she says. And now she’s saying something as she points over to a clump of trees. Her voice seems urgent, or pained maybe, but I can’t be sure.

“She says, ‘Under the trees, that’s where we bury the ones who die from the water.'” The man explains. “‘That’s where my children are,’ she says.”

The man goes on to tell me that the freshly dug ground in front of the trees is the new expansion of the cemetery. They’ve run out of room in the trees.

Monica says they are grateful for the water they have, because in the dry season, sometimes it dries up altogether and they have to travel several more miles to find another scarce source.

Later, we walk a narrow red dirt path back to the other Americans with whom I’ve been traveling. I have my arm around Monica’s shoulder. Her arm is around mine. My other hand holds my Nalgene bottle of clean water. The whole day, no one ever asked for a drink. And as we pass by that plot of trees Monica pointed to earlier, there are people gathered. They are burying a boy in the newly tilled red dirt in front of those trees.

Jo and Monica 1

*     *     *     *     *

It is July 2011, and I am in Haiti. The dirt here is red, too. I am standing near a cistern and I can see the larva of insects floating on the top of the water gathered there.

haiti water filterNext to me is a woman named Modlin. The look on her face is half excitement and half concentration. We’re watching as a man explains to the pastor of Modlin’s church how to use and clean a water filter that hooks onto a 5-gallon bucket. Modlin has several technical questions. She will be the appointed caretaker of the filter for their community until they get more than one.

Now she asks another question, disbelieving what she thought she just heard: “No more cholera?”

The answer is affirmative: The filter is able to eliminate the cholera contaminants. As I look back to Modlin, her face is lit with joy and hope and she’s dancing now … she’s singing hallelujah. No, not singing, she is shouting hallelujah and dancing. She’s dancing and singing and praising God for clean water.

*     *     *     *     *

It is 2013. I am sitting in an office writing this, drinking hot tea. For six years now, each time I refill my glass, I thank God for clean water, a life-changing gift that not all have.

I think that’s the “giving” part of Thanksgiving. I’ve given thanks, and it’s changed my heart. When I am most thankful for what I have, it makes me want to share the blessings with others, too.

Even if the blessing is just a drink of clean water. It can still save lives. It can still inspire songs of “hallelujah.” I’d like to have a thankful heart that joins that song.

Joanna O’Hanlon is an adventurer and story-teller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.  Other places are

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