The options had narrowed down to this; exchange her only dairy cow for a donkey. The cow was not only a source of nutrition for the family of six, it also generated a reasonable income.
Despite the obvious advantages of keeping the cow, Naomi Munyika went ahead and exchanged it for the donkey. And there was a good reason for this: water.
Her home in the sun scorched plains of Mlilo in Kishushe location, Taita Taveta County, had no running water. The nearest source of water was Paranga River, some 10 kilometres away. Every day, Naomi would set out for the river at the crack of dawn, only to get back home late in the afternoon with a 20-litre jerrycan balanced on her head.
“By the time I got back, I would be so exhausted that all I could do was crawl under the shade and sleep for the rest of the afternoon. I had no time for any other useful engagement. My whole life revolved around that one jerrycan of water.”
That’s how Naomi got the idea of exchanging her only cow for a donkey. She figured that with the beast of burden she could ferry several jerrycans of water per trip, reducing the number of trips to the river each week. Now she had the water, but she needed to find a way to make up for the absence of the cow.
Then three years ago, ActionAid and Safaricom Foundation launched the Kangemi Mlilo Water Project, which transformed her life in ways she would never have thought possible. The project brought water right to her doorstep, opening up a world of possibilities that many with easy access to water often take for granted.
“I’m no longer preoccupied with searching for water. I only walk for a few minutes to the water kiosk. I now have the whole day to pursue other economic activities,” she says.
With the abundance of water she has turned to irrigation and is now growing vegetables for domestic use and sale to traders, who take the produce to the market in Voi town.
“Besides better income, nutrition for my family has improved. We also have enough water for laundry and bathing. I had never thought it was possible to have a bath every day. We are much cleaner and definitely happier,” she says, her face lighting up.
David Mwamburi is the chairman of the Kangemi Mlilo Water Project, which is now benefiting 4,000 families. He describes the project as a game changer for the residents.
“During the hot season, Paranga River is reduced to a dry river bed. To get water we used to dig into the riverbed, but what we got was dirty and diseases such as diarrhoea were common,” he recalls.
He says the diseases presented the residents with a double jeopardy; not only were they forced to spend scarce resources on treatment, they were not able to engage in economic activities while sick – resulting in loss of valuable income
“But things are changing now, and the link between availability of clean drinking water, improved health and increased economic production is more evident,” says Mwamburi.
To see what he means, you only have to visit any of the schools that dot the county, which faces perennial water scarcity that has had adverse effects on education.
Take for example Mlilo Primary School, where it used to be a requirement for pupils to carry five litres of water to school every day. This meant that parents like Naomi had to ferry more water from the river to spare some for their children to carry to school, exerting even more pressure on already strained caregivers.
That’s no longer the case though.
It is 4pm and the school is engulfed by oppressive heat and a whirl of dust that dances across the compound. It is time for the afternoon break and the school explodes to life. Pupils pour out of their classrooms carrying plastic water bottles. They head to the water tank behind a classroom block, where they queue for water to quench their thirst.
It’s a far cry from the situation a few years ago.
“One of the greatest benefits of the Kangemi Mlilo Water Project is the supply of clean water to Mlilo Primary School. Children can concentrate on learning without the extra burden of ferrying water to school.
It seems like a little thing, but it goes a long way in giving the children a better chance at life simply because they can not only spend more time studying, but they can also enjoy playing and being children,” says Nancy Saru, a beneficiary of the project.
Interestingly, by supplying water to the school, the project as also created greater economic opportunities for the community. According to area chief Joseph Meso, the water supply to schools has greatly improved construction.
“Before, we got water in schools, construction could only take place when it rained. Now we can build any time of the year because we have a reliable source of water,” he says.
Not only that, in Mwakelili village, the project has triggered a green revolution. In the coolness of the shadows cast by the hills that dot the landscape, Donald Mwaosi is watering his lush green shamba using hosepipes.
The greenery of the garden contrasts sharply with the rocky and barren hillside. For two years now, Mr. Mwaosi has been growing a variety of crops such as passion fruit, cabbages, spinach, capsicums and peas.
“Two years ago, I couldn’t make a living out of this shamba. My source of livelihood was charcoal burning. Today I make an average of KES1,000 in sales each day. I have vegetable sellers coming here every day because I grow vegetables throughout the year,” he says.
Like Mr Mwaosi, other farmers are turning to irrigation for a living turning their backs on charcoal burning. In a way the project is also contributing to environmental conservation.