People Matter: Margaret
By Julie Smith
I barely noticed Margaret at first – a shy, older woman in a blue skirt and worn blouse – but Margaret made sure she was unforgettable. Her bald head was not unusual; it is common for women to shave their head in order to prevent lice, but her unabashed smile is rarely seen among women in rural Ugandan communities. The first time we took the dusty drive, on more of a narrow walking path than a road, to get to Bungbe village, Margaret and a handful of other people came to find out why visitors from town, and even white visitors, had come to stand in a field in their village. Margaret observed quietly all that was going on, but when Divine Waters Uganda (DWU) staff began asking questions of Margaret and the other women, inquiring about the water sources around and possible locations for a new well, she shared eagerly. When we introduced ourselves, she respectfully clasped both my hands with a little bow, and, deciding we would become very good friends, she embraced me tightly then stepped back with that uninhibited smile.
When we returned the next day, she was waiting at the edge of town with palm branches to lay in front of our car. She wore a bright green skirt and a white blouse – her finest. In a place where laundry water (as well as drinking water) comes from the swamp, white clothes are a rarity and reserved for special occasions. I interpreted her embraces, which lasted longer each consecutive day, as a mixture of gratitude and pity for me, being the only woman among three truck-fulls of men that came to the village each day. Either way, I appreciated the kindness she showed and felt extremely undeserving of her love.
She talked to me frequently, either assuming I spoke Luo like her or not minding that I didn’t understand. Through gestures, I learned that she lived on the other side of the path where we stood, directly across from the site the village and DWU selected for the well, and that she had donated her land to be used for the community well. Her brick-making business would have to relocate, but she did not complain. Over the next few days, people would come and go to watch the drilling take place, but Margaret never left the site except when she was helping to cook lunch for us.
I have seen many wells drilled, but this woman’s passion and servanthood sparked a deeper curiosity. I learned that Margaret lived in this village since she married her husband, Anthony, when she was just 16 years old. Her mother could not afford to send her to school since her father spent most of his adulthood in prison during Idi Amin’s reign, but she strove to be a role model for the community. Margaret and Anthony worked hard to have a good, clean home with well-educated children, despite their struggles and challenges living in rural Uganda during a violent time in the country’s history.
Margaret and Anthony’s lifelong desire was to drill a well for the community. Even before boreholes were common in the region, her husband would tell people that the water they were drinking was one of the reasons so many children were dying, and that a borehole would help save them and keep everyone healthier. The disease burden in Bungbe village is heavy. Diarrhea and malaria are extremely common. Community leaders agreed that more than 60% of the community is HIV positive or living with AIDS. These illnesses make the quality of water a matter of life or death.
Margaret and her husband tried their entire lives to save money to have a well drilled. A series of setbacks kept wiping out their savings, from the Karamojong cattle raiders stealing their entire herd of cattle, to the decision to prioritize their children’s education, to the LRA insurgency, and finally her husband’s lengthy illness. After each setback, they rose again and restarted their savings. Margaret’s husband passed away last year and did not live to see his dream come true, but Margaret says that now, being close to the well, she feels she is still close to her husband.
“I feel so happy that God has answered our dream of having clean water for the community even if my husband is no longer alive. It would be good if he could have seen how his dream for clean water has come to pass, so that we could rejoice together. But I and the community shall work very hard to keep this well. I will be near the water well as though I am near my husband, because this was his dream and his love for his community.”
Julie Smith is a Lifewater Program Manager and oversees programs in Asia and Africa.