The well in the wilderness

There have been a number of advertisements for organisations promoting fresh water for “emerging nations” Most people believe that international welfare organisations will solve the problems that poor people face in other countries. I once went on a camping trip deep in the Zambian veld (Savanna)and this was my experience.

Since it is extremely dangerous to camp alone in the bush I approached a tiny village and asked permission to camp within their stockade. They agreed and indicated where I should set up my camp.

During the night I heard a number of people coughing so in the morning I went to the tree in the centre of the village. In every African village a piece of iron hangs in such a tree, an old plough disc or short piece of railway line, etc.

I struck the iron to make it ring and summon the people. When it rings the people say “The iron is crying, we must meet at the tree” . I stood there quietly waiting until they had all assembled and then said” I am a medicine man ” being somewhat true as I had training  as a military paramedic.

In my survival pack I carried a good quantity of antibiotics etc, so I opened it, packed out an array of medicines and they lined up for treatment. In the bush you need no licence to practice or dispense medicine.

Some of the infants burst into tears when their mothers offered them to me for treatment.  They had never seen a white person before and thought that I was a ghost. Once the round was over I explained that we would have to do this three times a day.

My greatest concern was how the infection had struck the whole village and after protracted discussion with them I discovered the cause. They were sucking water up from the ground through a reed and then spitting it into a bowl which was passed around for all to drink from.

They took me to where they were doing this  and I asked for their permission to ” Summon the water Mightily” Rather dubiously they agreed and I went to the 4X4 and unloaded two of my large empty plastic drums.

We punched holes into the sides and wrapped my flysheet around them as a filter, tying it with nylon tent cord. The rest of the day was spent digging a hole into the ground at the water point. About eight feet down we reached the water table, seeping through the ground.

We lowered the drums into the hole and filled in around them and thorn branches were placed around the well to prevent the cattle from falling into it. By now it was evening and we were all tired.

The next morning I was awakened by a polite cough. It was the village headman and his face was wreathed in smiles. He said that when some women had gone to the well the drums were full and there was so much water they were dancing for joy.

They said that they wanted to show me something  and took me for a long walk into the bush. After several miles we came to a concrete structure. It was a properly engineered well complete with a chain and bucket.

They explained that many men had come with big lorries and machinery to build it, one of many across the land they had heard. When it was built they asked the men where the water was and they were told that when the rains came the water would come. The rains came and went but the well remained dry. No one thought to ask the villagers where the water was.

A few nights later the coughing had stopped and as their course of medication had ended, my daily clinic was no longer needed. A few days of demonstrating practical hygiene, including an uproarious demonstration to the ladies on how to basin bath a baby and my holiday came to an end.

On my last evening there we had a celebratory dance in the moonlight, under the open sky. When I left the village I gave them my spade and axe to maintain the well with. I took with me priceless memories of a gentle, gracious and dignified people who I carry in my heart to this day.


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