craig borlase writer
articles December 9th, 2016

Me, a Bunch of Thirteen Year Old Girls and a Double Bill of Humiliation and Inspiration – Stidia’s story (and my story too)

[In January 2009 I wasn’t quite sure why I had been invited to join a trip to south west Uganda with a UK development agency, but it seemed like a good enough idea at the time. But when the team leader suggested I take part in a ‘unique challenge’, my role became clearer: I was the comedy act. The strange thing is, as I sweated and panted my way up the steep slopes with a 20 litre jerry can on my head, I knew that I was loving every bit of the experience. A few years later, I finally worked out that this was one of the single most significant experiences that set me on the path to becoming a memoir writer. Also, please excuse the iPod and Armstrong references, as well as the fact that it’s written in present tense. That’s just the way we did things back in 2009.]

I have agreed to join a group of girls from the village of Kigazi, in rural south west Uganda, as they trek down the mountainside to fetch water. The nerves started when I spoke with Stidia, Praise, Shira, and Evas a couple of days ago:
Me: I’m going to try and carry one of your twenty litre jerry cans up the hill. Do you think I’ll be ok?
The Girls: (shocked) No!
Me: (also shocked) No? Why not? I’m bigger than you, aren’t I?
The Girls: (amused) You’re just not used to it.
Me: Really? OK, give me a tip then; how can I cope?
Evas: (sniggering) I’ll give you a 5 litre can.
I have to admit that I was feeling confident back then. These girls are small by European standards, more like ten year olds, and they have no shoes. I have my running trainers on – the nice ones with the decent grip and proper support. I carbed up a little yesterday and made sure that there are a few extra bottles of water in the bag. I have my special running top on too, ready to wick away the sweat and ensure optimum performance.
And then we start the descent. It’s steep, alpine steep. And rocky. And slippery. And those four girls don’t just run down, they sprint. I’m in trouble.
But their quick feet and happy chatting seem to drop off as we descend the mountain. I’m tempted to think that it’s because they’re tiring, but I know the truth. This trip that they make twice a day to collect water for drinking, cooking, washing, cleaning and cultivating is not just physically demanding or inconvenient. It is profoundly frightening.
Everyone knows why, yet it is the church leader – Jackson – who has given the clearest explanation;
‘When the girls go down for water, we have information that they are stabbed and beaten by the boys and sometimes raped.’
Rape and other forms of violence are not limited to this remote mountainside. Across the developing world there are 900 million people who lack access to clean, safe water, and have to walk far from their home to collect it. There are 2.5 billion people who, unlike the residents of Kigazi village, do not have access to a decent toilet or pit latrine, and are forced out, particularly at night, into the darkness around their homes in search of a little privacy. At these times people are vulnerable to attack. Rape has become a horrific yet familiar shadow cast over those collecting the water or just trying to improvise without a loo.
By the time we arrive at the water source the girls’ mood has completely changed. The singing and skipping is over, and their eyes move quickly, searching the hills that encircle them, providing cover for spying eye. I look up and see men high up, hiding badly behind banana trees as well as young boys all attitude and swagger staring, feet fixed to the ground, as the girls hurry to their tasks.
I guess I’m too preoccupied with sensing the girls’ fear to think about what will happen once my particular jerrycan is full. After an eternity of trickling in – which must be agony when you are here alone – the water is finally spilling out of the top, and it’s my cue to load up.
Let me give you an idea what 20 kilos feels like. Imagine the kind of bike that Lance Armstrong uses. Hold it on your head. Then get another one. And another. Or, if you don’t fancy these try 543 iPhone nanos, 133 complete season 1 to 6 boxsets of 24, or a couple of toddlers. Chubby ones, too.
I start, and instantly I’m staggering, stumbling and sweating. I’m not sure how long it takes – my brain seems to have given up on keeping track of time, and instead I felt sick, faint, and at times, mildly high. My body’s chucking everything it can at me to keep me going; endorphins, nausea and the occasional urge to curse the fool who ever suggested this whole crazy thing in the first place.
For Stidia, one of the girls disappearing off into the distance ahead of me, this will be one of her last regular trips down and up the mountain. This week her parents are having a rainwater collection tank constructed next to their home, and once full, it will let a whole lot more than just water flow; life itself will be unplugged as Stidia’s daily routine will be transformed. No longer will she spend two hours a day weighed down by water, the risks of rape and abuse will drop, her fears will recede and her health, education and self-esteem will all improve. Finally, for Stidia, her life’s potential will begin to be measured out in far more than staggered steps up a rocky mountain.
“It is a gift from God,” she explains.
She’s right, and the gift has been delivered by God’s most favourite of present-bearers; the local church. Thanks to the leadership and support of Pastor Jackson, as well as the training and generosity of the Diocese of Kigezi Water and Sanitation Project and the funding they have received from Tearfund, this village is beginning to be transformed. Hope is restored, potential unleashed and life allowed to flow.
Eventually I make it to the top. I’m over an hour behind the girls who merely ploughed their way up like that man Armstrong on the Tour de France. But I’ve made it.
Exhausted, a thought suddenly settles. I’ve managed to carry it up the hill, but I’m kidding myself if I think I’ve shared in their experience. I’ve had my shoes and my water and my carbs and my pride all cheering me on. I’ve shared in none of their fear, none of their thirst, none of their rush to get back up with the water before rushing off to school in pursuit of the education that offers a way out. I’ve been a tourist, but the experience will remain with me forever.
There’s another thought in here too; I’ve witnessed the local church in all its glory. No, not me sweating up the hillside, but here, at the top, with its care, devotion and commitment to meeting all the needs of the local people. The church has led the way in promoting and developing improved water and sanitation training here in the village, putting the proposal together that first got the Diocese involved, and the fact that yesterday’s service was rammed shows just how much it is working.
I am tired, but happy.