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Mission H20: A Thirst-Quenching Journey Through Uganda

by Scott Cole

Stepping out of his American box, Scott Cole takes the trip of a lifetime to Uganda with Water School where he learned how to build an outdoor lava rock shower, a “Tippy Tap” hand-washing structure, and, most importantly, he witnessed how people with so little material goods and tainted water are exuberantly happy.

I have been interested in the worldwide water issue for some time, especially knowing that corporate beverage giants have been vying for at least two decades to basically “take over” or at least capitalize BIG TIME on what all creatures need to live on: H20. Humans are made of 70-75% water, so it seems more than tragic that most of the developing world does NOT have access to clean, clear, beautiful water.

The thought that the same fine folks who lobby for mainstream use and renaming of liver-challenging corn syrup, obesity-enhancing chemical preservatives, diabetes-inducing high-fructose corn syrup, the use of GMOs (genetically modified organisms), and rather deceptive “non-labeling” on top of that are now quite focused on bottling water—and SELLING it for big profit—makes me sweat profusely… dehydrating me in a matter of seconds if I think about it too long. I guess it is safe to say that the “water issue” makes me thirsty for justice.

Frustrated by my ultimate job security as a “Wellness Expert” in a country with nearly 30% obesity, I had been doing that thing that I would like to do more often: throw my hands up in the air and ask the Universe for help—for an opportunity to do something different, something meaningful, something out-of-the-box, most likely in another country—to gain some spiritual perspective, to see things through different eyes, and to participate in something that would make a difference in my life as well as serve the lives of others for the better. I asked for that, clearly, and wow…

I received a call out of the blue from an old friend and personal training client in New York. “Scott, I’d like you to meet up with friends of mine from Water School, a charity based in Canada. They are going to be in Southern California, and I told them you might be able to meet with them and brainstorm.”

My friend explained to me that Water School has a strong presence in Africa, utilizing a simple technology that converts tainted water into clean water using solar UV rays. “Hmmm, sounds too good to be true,” I thought. But I agreed to meet them for lunch, certainly intrigued by what they may have to impart.

Africa had been looming large in my visions, especially after sobbing my way through the horrifyingly descriptive article in Vanity Fair about the decimation of African elephants by greedy poachers. I had been to Egypt and South Africa, and actually flew over the entire continent of Africa at night from Paris to Johannesburg in 2005. I remember the moon was unusually bright, allowing stellar glimpses of the land below, highlighting the mysterious fires on the plains.

The leader of her village now has plenty to smile about

“Who was sitting around those fires?” I thought. Would I ever get to see and experience the true flavor of this grand vast continent? Like a child dreaming, I deeply hoped that I would, and in a big way.

Lunch with Water School co-founder Fraser Edwards was indeed revealing. Fascinated for sure, I left the meeting excited, but not quite sure how I could help or what role I could play, but a big idea was forming in my mind.

I had been working with Frostburg State University in western Maryland for five years on a wellness initiative called CHILL (Creating Healthy Informed Lasting Lifestyles). I called my friend, Dr. Tom Bowling at FSU, to share with him about Water School and how the SODIS System (Solar Disinfection) in clear plastic bottles is used to purify tainted bacteria-filled water in just 24-48 hours in the sun, 30 degrees north or south of the Equator, where Mother Nature’s ultraviolet rays are most powerful.

We had conference calls with Water School and both reviewed the website www.waterschool.com. We agreed that this sounded like experiential education at its best, and the energy began to swirl around taking a group of students to Uganda on a mission with Water School, going in to schools and villages in remote areas and implementing SODIS and necessary sanitary changes sanctioned by Water School. Dr. Bowling acted rather quickly to bring in the other Water School co-founder, Bob Dole, whose compelling lecture to the students solidified our commitment to work more closely with Water School. The students were on fire… about water!

Our team formed quite organically, like water flowing around a rock, sponsored by Frostburg State University with four elite students (Micayla Bowman, Sharita Sivels, Jonathan Shadel, Justin Ternent), a faculty representative (Douglas Baer), a videographer (Michael Snyder, Interdependent Films), and a passionately frustrated wellness expert—me!

This water treatment only works within 30 degrees north or south of the equator, due to the mega-strength of UV rays close to the equator.

Lots of prep work, communication with Water School, and seven inoculations later, we were ready to go in late March 2012, for 10 days.

All I could think of was that movie Raid on Entebbe because that is the airport we flew into, after a few stops along the way—really, just a short 27 hours from New York and you’re there! Then a late night, dimly lit 45-minute drive to Kampala, the capital of Uganda, and a welcomed rest at the Kampala Sheraton completed the very long journey.

Very little sleep, up at dawn, meeting our hosts James, John, and driver Paul, we found ourselves cruising in an 80’s van for 12 hours, crossing the Equator and half of the country to Kisoro in western Uganda, near the Rwanda and Congo borders. We arrived at night, so we didn’t realize until we emerged from our mosquito-netted beds out into the beautiful morning light that we were close to three rather gorgeous volcanoes. And then we hit the ground running.

Each morning began with a briefing from our Ugandan Water School leaders and colleagues at the local Kisoro Water School Headquarters. Our Ugandan hosts were more than determined to teach us, work with us, and also learn from us. I have to say that I have never met more gracious, loving people, who exuded amazing clarity and focus as they quite thoroughly explained our mission, our individual and group tasks, and got us motivated and confident that we could jump right in. With a little help and guidance, we learned quickly how to make an assessment of a property and make a difference in a matter of hours.

Three smiling school friends

After our briefings and group/team assignments, they allowed me to start the group each day with a “moving meditation” of Tai Chi, Yoga, Qigong, and team building, which they loved and participated in fully—and they, in turn, would lead us in a gorgeous empowering daily prayer. We all bonded immediately, laughing and joking with each other, all of us knowing that we were building life-long friendships.

Our daily purpose was to implement Water School principles into each location on our schedule. We divided up into teams with team leaders, and one American HAD to be a team leader, but of course, we had the support and expertise of our more experienced Ugandan counterparts. We had four rather full days of service, including two days in schools (two schools per day), and two days in villages and private homes.

I was also allowed to work out with the children, doing Tai Chi, Yoga, and fun stuff that had us all on the same rhythm of life spiritual page, group after group. In my 30 years of fitness work, I have never felt such natural joy and availability. Our hosts just pointed at me and said, “This white guy is going to play with you,” and the kids came running across the fields, ready for anything!

Some of the locations were not just around the corner, but hours away, and on some very bumpy, steep, and mostly unpaved roads. The questions were always, “There’s a school up HERE?” There’s a village in HERE?” And then we would see people walking, and walking, and walking… children, adults, seniors, walking, most often carrying things on their heads, and many carrying water, often walking to a water source miles away, and then carrying the heavy, contaminated water back to their village, home, or school.

The top of our 80’s Toyota van popped up so we could poke our heads out of the roof, which allowed for our “spontaneous chi” moments where we would smile and say “Hello!” (or the equivalent in regional dialect) to individuals and groups of villagers we passed on the roads. The Ugandan’s faces always lit up with amazing smiles, and they would verbally respond and wave energetically back to us. It was so heartwarming and connected that it became one of our favorite things to do. While in western Uganda for our water mission work, we were in non-tourist areas, so the sighting of a “Mzungu” (white person) in these areas was quite rare.

The countryside was breathtakingly beautiful, while the roads were breathtakingly bumpy. Our ribs were bruised from holding our cameras to capture the spectacular rural scenery while we used both hands to focus as the van bumped, rolled, and skidded through these quite remote locations. We were laughing and moaning at the same time, mildly injuring ourselves while smiling ear to ear.

 

A “Tippy Tap” allows the users to tilt the water jug with their foot to wash their hands, thus eliminating contamination.

Once at a location, our time was limited due to daylight and travel time, so we had to get busy quickly, inviting students and villagers to participate with us once we established where everything needed to be implemented.

Our tasks with Water School included making a full assessment of the property in question. What were the obvious sanitation issues? Was the trash out in the open? If so, where would we build the above ground trash container? Where were we to dig the pit to burn trash away from the school, the village, or the home? Where were we to build the unique handwashing apparatus called a “Tippy-tap?” Where were the banana leaves that we were going to use to build the in-ground toilet latrine covers? Who was going to tell the homeowner that it is not a good idea to have goats living in the house? Where would we help them relocate the rack for the dishes, pots, and pans, so it wasn’t near the chickens or too close to the ground to be contaminated?

Most importantly, where would we build the SODIS (Solar Disinfection) rack to place the plastic bottles filled with local tainted water, so Mother Nature’s UV Rays could work wonders in 24-48 hours to kill the bacteria, converting it into drinkable water? This water treatment— developed by Eawag in Switzerland and further refined by Bob Dole—only works within 30 degrees north or south of the equator, due to the mega-strength of UV rays close to the equator.

It’s important to note that according to Water School research, there is no leaching in the plastic bottles. Keep in mind that the Sun’s natural ultraviolet rays are different than heating in a microwave, or a heated and bloated plastic bottle left in your car for days.

Uganda, with a 2012 estimated population close to 36 million people and considered one of the poorest nations on Earth, is a prime spot to bring forth inexpensive water treatment that doesn’t require expensive or frequent maintenance. As we witnessed, and what Water School has known for years: once the Ugandans realized that living with bloated bellies and chronic diarrhea isn’t normal and that they could easily utilize the sun’s rays going into their own personal plastic bottle and feel healthier, those Ugandan individuals became healthy role models in their communities and villages. They then shared these techniques with their neighbors, friends, and family. When you are taught from childhood to drink water from your nearest source, most likely a contaminated one, there is no reason to question it, nor are there any options, unless you are able to be educated to make healthier choices.

Water School has provided this valuable health education since 2004 to over 400,000 people, and I am proud to have been a small part of that message and education.

“The Tao is like a well:
Used but never used up.
It is like the eternal void:
Filled with infinite possibilities.”
—TAO TE CHING,
TRANSLATED BY STEPHEN MITCHELL.

“Yes” to water; “Yes” to travel; “Yes” to the goal of bringing healthy water to Africa and, in the process, having my soul hydrated by unconditional love, collective giving, eye-watering receiving, and stepping out of the American box into a world where lives aren’t gauged by what kind of car you drive. What began with a phone call from an old friend in New York and a lunch at Jake’s in Palm Springs turned into a multidimensional, magical journey deep into western Uganda.

Students ready to work with us

My soul was indeed hydrated by the love of the Ugandan people and the generosity of Water School. We owe it to Mother Earth to preserve its beauty and respect the magic and gift of Water, keeping it clean and available for all.

To donate to Water School, go to www.waterschool.com. A few dollars can make a huge difference in providing clean water for individuals, families, schools, and communities. To see the short film Unbridled Enthusiasm: The Children of Uganda, visit www.scottcole.com.