Midwife Clemmie Hooper and her husband, Simon, travelled to Madagascar hoping to bring clean, running water to young families.
At Christmas, my thoughts are usually consumed by rampant materialism. Namely, the volume of presents I usually like to buy for my children, but this year, I feel differently. My husband, Simon, and I recently travelled to Madagascar off the southeast coast of Africa to see how clean water, handwashing and decent toilets can impact the lives of people living in some of the world’s poorest communities.
We had been approached by Soaper Duper and international development charity WaterAid as part of their Global Handwashing Campaign to help shed light on the links between handwashing, clean water and diseases. Shockingly, 800 children die every day around the world from diseases caused by dirty water – a preventable number when statistics show that the simple act of handwashing with soap can cut cases of diarrhoea by 40 per cent. As a midwife and mother, I’m only too aware of the importance of clean hands, but I wanted to learn more, and see if I could help.
As we left for a country I ashamedly only knew about from the animated film my children had watched at the cinema, I was unsure how I would react during this trip. Like many women of my age and background, I hadn’t seen real poverty before. Nor had we been away from our four girls for such a length of time, so fear started to creep in.
I had no idea what to expect, but I approached the experience in the way I approach a 12-hour shift on a labour ward; hopeful of good outcomes but mindful of the potential for some bumps along the way.
The first village we visited was called Ambohidronono, where the families are forced to collect unsafe water from a well or the local river. I was drawn to Tolotra who, like me, had been a midwife for 10 years. We compared stories and she told me how she managed without the basics, such as clean water and toilets. Tolotra had made the unfathomable sacrifice of leaving the relative comfort of her hometown to come and care for the women in this village. I asked her how it made her feel not being able to be hygienic and wash her hands properly in-between examining or delivering babies. She said with tears in her eyes: “We have no choice. I’m doing the best I can for these women. You would do the same.”
Here, heavily pregnant women have to provide their own water for their delivery at the basic health centres. It must be terrifying to know the water being used to clean the beds, birthing equipment and floors could be spreading lethal infections, and that they are relying on the same water to wash themselves and their newborns.
I met Robina, who was only 17 years old and eight months pregnant with her second baby. I walked with Robina and her mother (who carried Robina’s son on her back) to the river to experience the walk for water they do at least three times a day. The path down to the river was unstable and steep at times, and in the heat of the midday sun, it was an uncomfortable and arduous journey.
I watched Robina and her mother collect water in their jerrycans, then wash themselves and their little boys’ faces with the water. Two nearby cows made their way down to the river to cool off from the hot Madagascan sun, before relieving themselves in the river, only a few metres from where Robina and her mother were collecting water for the family. It broke my heart to know that Robina and other mothers living here have no other option than to collect and drink this dirty water, or die of dehydration.
The next day, we visited Mahavoky Village, which has had clean water and toilets for just over seven months. The difference as we entered the village was palpable; children were singing and dancing, there was a sense of hope in the air and the entire community felt there was much to be thankful for since water came to the village and the local school. WaterAid has worked closely with the local community to share good hygiene education, including the importance of washing hands before eating or preparing food, as well as installing water points and toilet facilities.
Here, I met midwife Narinda at her health centre where she has delivered many babies. She told me: “Before clean water came, women had to bring their own water in whilst in labour and it was difficult for them to keep clean during and after delivery. I also couldn’t wash my hands and be hygienic when delivering babies. Diarrhoea rates were very high. Now we have a shower, facilities to wash clothes, toilets and clean water, more women are coming here for consultations and to have their babies.”
The contrast between the two villages couldn’t have been more different. As we spent the last few hours in the village, the children following us with their beaming smiles, and watching the sunset over the most beautiful of landscapes, my thoughts turned to my own daughters back at home in England. I thought about them having their evening bubble bath, brushing their teeth and tucking them up in their cosy soft beds. I ached for their tiny arms to be around me and to hear them call me “Mama”. I couldn’t imagine not being able to keep them safe. But because of the geography of where these families were born they struggle every day to keep their children healthy; the simple act of providing clean water and good hygiene would change everything for these women and their children. It would give them a future.
Seeing mothers and babies living in poverty has made me really think about the consumerism around Christmas, and how much we focus on what we haven’t got. It has certainly made me appreciate the small things we take for granted, such as being able to walk over to a sink and wash my hands with clean running water.
This Christmas, just £15 can bring clean water and good hygiene to a person for life, and if you donate to WaterAid’s Untapped appeal by the end of January, your donation will be doubled by the UK government, meaning that WaterAid can help bring a brighter future to twice as many families. I think that sounds like the best Christmas gift any mother could wish for.
Soaper Duper is committed to donating £150k by 2019 to support WaterAid’s global efforts to bring access to safe water and hygiene to some of the world’s poorest communities. For further information and if you’d like to donate, please visit wateraid.org