‘Mennonite’ wells flowing for all

Wells give 15,000 Tanzanians access to clean water

Aug 25, 2014 by and

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SHIRATI, Tanzania — When Mennonites drill a well, can only Men­nonites draw water from it?

Edna, a student in Muharango, Tanzania, operates a new well near her village. Funded by Friends of   Shirati, a nonprofit organization of former Mennonite missionaries, the well offers access to clean water for more than 5,000 people. — Valerie Weaver-Zercher/Friends of Shirati

Edna, a student in Muharango, Tanzania, operates a new well near her village. Funded by Friends of Shirati, a nonprofit organization of former Mennonite missionaries, the well offers access to clean water for more than 5,000 people. — Valerie Weaver-Zercher/Friends of Shirati

That was the question a group of men recently posed to Fred Otieno, director of planning and development for the North Mara diocese of the Tanzania Mennonite Church.

The men had paused in their daily routines to watch the operation of a new well in Muharango, a village west of Shirati, the site of the first Mennonite congregation in East Africa. In 1934, Mennonite missionaries from Lancaster County, Pa., traveled to Shirati, in then-Tanganyika, and began mission, health and educational work on the shores of Lake Victoria.

Now, 80 years later, the men in a neighboring village were watching clean water flow from a recently installed pump. They had heard rumors that because Mennonites had drilled the well, only Mennonites were allowed to use it. Otieno, who was visiting the well to check on its operation and use, assured them this is not true.

“I don’t want to hear that at all,” Otieno told them and asked the men to do their part to correct that misunderstanding in their village.

The new well in Muharango, and two additional wells in the nearby communities of Rwan­gwenyi and Manila, were funded by an estate gift to Friends of Shirati, a nonprofit organization providing medical, development and educational assistance to Tanzania that was started by former missionaries to Shirati.

Previously, women in the villages had to draw water from dirty pools in the rainy season. In the dry season, they had to walk about six miles to Lake Victoria. Now, with wells near their communities, Otieno says, an estimated 15,000 people are reaping a variety of benefits.

Access to clean water means a decreased number of waterborne diseases, which especially affect children, as well as increased productivity for women who previously had to spend hours fetching water for their families.

Otieno, who managed the project on behalf of the Tanzania Mennonite Church with funding from Friends of Shirati, hired a contractor who discovered that a shallow-well technology, which draws from seams of groundwater near the surface, would work in this region. This technology proved to be less expensive than the more traditional deep-borehole approach, so the estate gift funded three wells rather than the initially planned two.

Misconceptions

The idea that only Mennonites could use the well wasn’t the only misconception people have had. Accustomed to the scarcity of clean water, many villagers have been concerned that the wells would run dry and have tried to “lock” the wells during certain periods of the day.

Dorcas, a woman in Manila, Tanzania, walks home with a bucket of clean water that she pumped from a new well, funded by Friends of Shirati and overseen by the North Mara diocese of the Tanzania Mennonite Church. Valerie Weaver-Zercher/Friends of Shirati

Dorcas, a woman in Manila, Tanzania, walks home with a bucket of clean water that she pumped from a new well, funded by Friends of Shirati and overseen by the North Mara diocese of the Tanzania Mennonite Church. — Valerie Weaver-Zercher/Friends of Shirati

He said education and a period of adjustment have been required, as people come to trust the well will produce enough water for their needs. Each can produce 158 to 211 gallons per hour.

Dale Ressler, volunteer executive director of Friends of Shirati, said that while the well project doesn’t directly benefit the Shirati Hospital, which is a ministry of the Tanzania Mennonite Church, it does ensure that fewer patients with waterborne illnesses require hospital services.

The irony, however, is that the hospital itself struggles with maintaining consistent access to running water.

“Clean water in surrounding villages is a definite step forward,” Ressler said, “but we’re still left with the curious problem of water shortages in the hospital itself, which can last up to two weeks at a time.”

The Shirati Hospital management team is looking for ways to resolve the water shortage and will be presenting a proposal to Friends of Shirati for financial consideration.

Friends of Shirati, which was organized as a committee under Eastern Mennonite Missions to support the work of Shirati Hospital, became a nonprofit organization in 2005. In addition to estate gifts and individual donations, churches, Sunday school classes and small groups have provided funds to Friends of Shirati for projects such as supplementing food in a kindergarten or hospital bills for children whose families are unable to pay.

Still a vital role

Eighty years after North American Mennonite missionaries arrived in Tanzania, Otieno said, churches and individuals in Canada and the U.S. still have a vital role in supporting the work of the Tanzania Mennonite Church through financial gifts, prayer and congregation-to-congregation partnerships.

Otieno suggested the model that worked for the well-drilling project — a nonprofit in the U.S. collaborating with the local Mennonite church — offers a sustainable approach to development work in Africa.

“I want to invite people to join with what we are doing to address problems rather than try to fix them,” he said.


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  • Herbert Reed

    Wonderful story. Thank you Valerie, for sharing it with us. I have fond memories of Shirati from the early 1970s when your family was living there. At that time the hospital got water from Lake Victoria using diesel pumps. I know even back then there were problems with the pumps and diesel engines. Maybe Shirati Hospital needs a few more friends to help keep the water flowing.

  • Dale Ressler

    Thanks to Valerie for this wonderful article and for MWR for publishing it. I have been volunteering to raise money to help Shirati Hospital, & Shirati Nursing School for 26 years. For the last 9 years as the volunteer Executive Director of Friends of Shirati, a nonprofit organization. While we have modernized some of the medical equipment, the current problem of NO water on the hospital campus for weeks at a time is more serious than any other problem that they have faced. Dr. Chirangi, the Medical Officer in Charge told me to “take the money for medicines and all other projects we are funding and resolve the water problem.”

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