By Kara Poppe, Johnson & Johnson Princeton in Africa Fellow
When will the rains come? This is a common discussion topic in Nyumbani Village, Kenya, but one that until recently, was very new to me.
In 2006, I was an adolescent in the United States, with little knowledge of the trials others experienced throughout the world—especially with water. I lived in an area with abundant, year-round precipitation, and the thought of anything different never crossed my mind. Clean water was second nature and flowed freely from the tap wherever I went. It never occurred to me that it might not be there when I needed it.
Fast forward ten years: I’m now a Princeton in Africa Fellow, supported by Johnson & Johnson, and a resident here in Nyumbani Village—and water is at the forefront of my mind. With shades of brown as far as the eye can see and a light wind blowing reddish earth around, rain is ever welcome. Living in a semi-arid region near the equator, weeks (and often months) can pass without a drop of rain. These harsh, dry conditions are the biannual reality for Nyumbani Village.
Up until Nyumbani Village opened in 2006, this area was primarily used as a grazing area for cattle and goats. Then, in response to the growing number of orphaned children left behind by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, 1,000 acres of this semi-arid landscape was transformed into a home for 1,000 orphaned children and 100 grandparents who lost adult children to AIDS. Today, there are now 100 homes for families, three schools, an outpatient clinic, a commercial farm, and more.
From the beginning, sustainability has been a key component of Nyumbani Village. Whether it is pressing bricks on-site or growing thousands of tomatoes in greenhouses, it is important to prioritize and conserve locally available resources. While drilling boreholes and constructing shallow wells provided water for construction and domestic washing purposes, it was quickly discovered that the water beneath Nyumbani Village is saline and not suitable for drinking. Fresh water was sometimes scarce. This caused a great deal of worry, especially during the dry spells.
Where could Nyumbani Village source that water? Taking full advantage of the brief biannual rains was one idea—with more than 140 buildings, the surface area of the sheet metal roofs offered an obvious solution.
Since 2010, Johnson & Johnson has partnered with Princeton in Africa and Nyumbani Village to support the rainwater harvesting project because providing easy access to clean water (and therefore sanitation and hygiene) is a major driver towards a life of health and well-being. For those infected and affected by HIV, access to water means staying safe and in school, and may play a major role in curbing the spread of HIV.
As the Princeton in Africa Fellow, I work alongside Nyumbani Village staff and local contractors and suppliers to install and maintain 10,000-liter rainwater tanks that can capture and contain rainwater for use well into the dry seasons. One morning, one of the women in the village told me how much the tanks mean to her. She told me stories of how, as a child and as a younger woman, she collected water from the nearby river, first with a gourd on her back, then later with jerry cans and a donkey.
“I am less tired these days, because I do not have to fetch water. I now invest my time in others things, like working a lot in my garden,” she says. Having fetched water for most of her life, she knows the importance of water conservation and regularly educates the children under her care on this. “If we are careful, most years, we have some water remaining in the tank when the rains come again in October.”
Presently, each family’s home and most administrative buildings are outfitted with gutters and a tank. The village-wide system is capable of storing more than 1,400,000 liters of fresh, clean water. If conserved carefully, one 10,000 liter tank can supply a family with daily freshwater throughout the dry season.
Prior to living in Nyumbani Village, many children and elderly walked several kilometers per day to source freshwater for their families. Now in Nyumbani Village, with freshwater access at every home through the rainwater tank, it increases time for other activities, such as studying, farming, and playing sports.
Before Nyumbani Village, life for the nearby children who lost parents to AIDS was bleak. By providing access to water, sanitation, hygiene, and much more, Nyumbani Village is helping them to stay healthy, and live the empowered lives they deserve.