Water of Life: Wee Man Doesn't Take it for Granted (And Neither Should You)

By Cathleen Falsani 6-08-2009

One of the everyday things Vasco has enjoyed most since arriving in Chicago from Malawi five weeks ago is being able to go into the kitchen and pour a cool glass of crystal clear water, from the sink or the refrigerator door.

As much as he wants. Whenever he wants.

That's a new experience for this 10-year-old child from sub-Saharan Africa who, when he had access to water at all, had to walk to the community borehole with a plastic bucket and haul it back to his hut in small amounts.

And even then, the water wasn't clean. The parasite in Vasco's bladder is a testament to that.

Madzi is the Chichewa word for water. For the first few weeks he was living with us in Oak Park, that was always his answer when we asked what he'd like to drink with a meal. Milk? Juice? Coke? Fanta?

"No, thank you," he'd say. "Madzi, chonde. Water, please."

More than 894 million people worldwide -- that's one of every six people on Earth -- don't have access to the 20-50 liters of safe freshwater required each day to meet the most basic drinking, cooking, and cleaning needs, according to the World Health Organization and the United Nations.

Globally, diarrhea is the leading cause of illness and death. And 88 percent of all diarrhea deaths are due to the lack of access to adequate sanitation and unsafe drinking water, according to the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council.

Vasco, an orphan who has a large, congenital heart defect, has known thirst. He's suffered through life-threatening bouts of diarrhea and malaria without being able to slake his thirst with as much clean water as he needed, anytime he needed it.

When Vasco lived alone on the street for several years before Mac, a kind caseworker from a charity for street children in Blantyre, Malawi, found him and took him to shelter, the tiny boy had to search for clean water on his own.

Vasco, or "Wee Man," as we call him, is scheduled to undergo life-saving open-heart surgery at Hope Children's Hospital next week.

Wee Man rarely talks about his life on the street or any of his struggles in Malawi. But around the dinner table earlier this week, when he got up to get himself another glass of water, we asked him about how he got water back home.

He told us about the borehole, and about having to cross a river at a low point -- the river was too polluted to drink from or even bathe in -- to get to it. He talked about the bucket he used to carry and how he boiled the water for tea.

Wee Man was among the lucky ones in his native land. The Shire River (pronounced "shee-ray") is the longest river in Malawi, flowing about 250 miles from Lake Malawi in the north to the Zambezi River in the south. For many Malawians, the Shire is the most convenient source of freshwater. But the chore of fetching water, which traditionally falls to women and children, can be deadly.

The Shire is home to killer crocodiles. In one area of Malawi alone, three deaths by crocodile attack on the river are reported every month, according to a 2006 United Nations report.

A few weeks back, we asked Vasco if he'd like to go for a boat ride on the Chicago River. When he said absolutely not because of the crocodiles (and because the only boat he'd seen before arriving in Chicago was a canoe), we thought he was kidding. He wasn't.

In March, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced the Sen. Paul Simon Water for the World Act of 2009, legislation that calls for our government to help provide access to clean drinking water for an additional 100 million people worldwide, including in places such as Malawi. It is the continuation of the work begun by the late Sen. Simon, who in 1998 published a book titled Tapped Out: The Coming World Crisis in Water and What We Can Do About It.

Durbin's water bill is languishing in committee. Thursday morning, I received an e-mail alert from the ONE Campaign, the nonprofit organization whose goal, in part, is to urge U.S. government funding for international aid programs, asking me to write my senator to support the bill.

My senior senator, bless him, already does. But maybe yours doesn't. You might want to find out.

One of our first outings with Wee Man was to the garden at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle with one of my closest friends and her children. Wee Man had a ball on the jungle gyms, obstacle courses, and rope bridges. At one point, Wee Man and Greta, both age 10, arrived at a display that featured a metal hand pump and a wooden shoot that guided water down a slope.

Greta's mother, Shayne, remarked aloud at the irony of our little guy from Malawi "playing" with the same kind of hand pump that he used in Malawi to collect water from the borehole.

"It's a toy for our kids, but for him it's life," she said.

Water is life, literally and figuratively.

It is a key element in the rituals of nearly every religious tradition.

As a purifier and a blessing. In baptism. Before burial.

As a symbol of redemption, grace, and life itself.

"If in thirst you drink water from a cup," the great Sufi poet Rumi said, "you see God in it."

Take a moment today and visit the ONE campaign Web site to sign an online petition urging your senator to support the Simon Water for the World Act of 2009.

Cathleen Falsani is the author of the new book Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace. She blogs at The Dude Abides.

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