By Devlin Smith
At the beginning of September, two African Well Fund board members, Angela Martens and Rob Trigalet, traveled to Uganda to visit several project sites funded by AWF. While there, they met with representatives from Africare, AWF’s partner organization in Africa, and met the people directly impacted by the wells being built in Uganda. Angela and Rob also posted blog updates and a cameraman documented the trip.
Now back from Uganda, Martens and Trigalet shared their experiences, including how it felt to see AWF’s efforts put into action.
How did you first get involved with the African Well Fund?
AM: I have been involved with AWF since the very beginning. In October 2002 I read on a U2 fan message board a post made by fans who wanted to raise money to build a well in Africa. I joined the group and have been active in the AWF ever since.
RT: When I was 15, I saw U2 for the first time and I knew, or at least certainly felt strongly, that music could change the world. It certainly was changing me. Like many U2 fans I knew, I wrote letters for Amnesty International in an effort to give my belief in changing the world a tangible form. Fast forward to 1999 and Bono’s involvement with the Jubilee 2000 campaign, which seemed to combine my passion for biblical justice and my desire to make a difference in the world, and so I became involved with Jubilee 2000. I started reading anything and everything about Africa and the issues of poverty.
In 2003,I can’t even remember where I first read about it, I’m sure it was on a U2 fansite, AWF was promoting its first “Build A Well For Bono’s Birthday” fundraiser and I was immediately struck by the simplicity and effectiveness of the idea that 100 or 200 people each putting in little bit of money, say $10 or $20, could build a well and completely change people’s lives, so my wife and I donated money that first year.
What got your interested in the organization and its cause?
AM: Funding a well in Africa is something that’s both practical and achievable. Building a well is something that can be both life changing and life saving. Clean water is essential for good health and can be as a new beginning for a whole community in Africa. For a group of people to get together and raise enough money for one clean water well is a realistic goal.
RT: Again, I think it was such a simple idea. I’d become very interested in Africa and, I think like a lot of people, I wanted to help but was overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems and I said to myself, “What could I possibly do to make a difference?” AWF provided me with a simple answer to that question.
When did you first start thinking about visiting Africa?
AM: Every couple of years the board of directors gets together with our partner, Africare. Three years ago, during our first meeting, Africare mentioned that a trip to Africa to visit the well sites we had funded was something that would be beneficial to us and we should really think about going if we got the chance.
RT: Since 2003, I slowly became more involved with AWF, speaking on the phone more and more frequently as time went by and one of things that come up fairly often was trying to get some of the AWF people over to visit some of the sites we had funded but it was a matter of coordinating schedules and finances, etc.
The night my wife and I were engaged in 1996, we made a list of places we wanted to visit in our lifetimes and Africa was on that list. Then, we were becoming more and more inspired as we read Bono’s speeches about his work on behalf of Africa. Our first step to answer that question of “What could we do to make a difference in Africa?” was to sponsor a child in Ethiopia through a program called Compassion and that was in 2002. We began writing letters back and forth with our child, Desta. Then, I think it was January or February of this year, we started talking about the possibility of visiting him. Uganda was close enough to Ethiopia and Uganda was where AWF had funded several wells so one thing led to another and we ended up contacting Africare, which is the organization that actually oversees the construction of the wells, and the trip came together really quickly
When did the planning for this trip start?
AM: We started discussing the trip more seriously about a year and a half ago. Originally, we were hoping to have the trip take place earlier in the year, in the springtime, but that didn’t pan out.
RT: January 2006.
How did you decide what countries and sites you’d visit?
AM: Africare facilitated the visit and chose the sites that would both be most beneficial for us to see and practical for Africare to arrange.
RT: There were several factors. My job is very season-specific so I only have certain windows of opportunity in the year where I can be away for long periods of time. Also, we were paying for the trip ourselves so we were limited by money as to how many places we could visit. So, with Uganda’s close proximity to Ethiopia, it was the obvious choice. The actual sites we visited were selected by the Africare field office in Ntungamo District, which is actually the area where the money from the first AWF fundraiser was sent.
What was the reaction of your family and friends to your visiting Africa?
AM: They were excited for me.
RT: It was really across the board, from “Why would you want to go to Africa?” I think that was more out of some fears people had to some of my friends becoming a lot more interested in AWF. I mean, I can tend to go on and on about AWF and Africare and my friends know I’m involved, but I think it made a lot of people stand back and say, “Wow, you’re really serious about this, aren’t you?”
What were some of the big challenges of planning this trip?
AM: The biggest challenge was probably finances. We continue to direct 100 percent of donation toward well building so the trip had to be funded privately. Also, coordinating the trip meant several communications between us, Africare representatives in DC and representatives in Uganda. Between different time zones and limited e-mail access in some areas of Uganda, this was a slow process at times.
RT: Logistics. Africa is different in so many ways—from websites that will not confirm your purchases but then charge your credit card four times to arriving at the airport to find out your flight has been changed without any notice. We tend to think of the internet as a tool where you can find any information you seek out but that’s only if someone has decided to make that information available and some of the places we were going, no one is writing about.
But it really wasn’t too bad. There were a lot of phone calls and e-mails to Anthony Ngosi, who runs Africare in Kampala, and he was a great source of information and help.
What was your first impression of Uganda?
AM: It was a bit overwhelming at first. Uganda is such a beautiful country and yet there is so much. On the drive between the airport and the hotel I saw more poverty than I’d ever seen in my life. The houses along the road were small shacks with goats and cows tied up close to the houses, children bathing in a small basin in the yard. I’d seen it on TV but it’s different when you see it in real life.
RT: I couldn’t believe the smell. The diesel fumes were enough to choke you and I think it would be safe to say there are no EPA standards in regard to vehicle emissions in Kampala. But as soon as we started to meet people, I just found them so gracious and kind. That’s what I will always remember. It seemed to me that they were being generous to us in the sense that they were letting us come in and see their lives. It was quite beautiful.
How did the country, the people and the experience match up to your expectations?
AM: I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The country was greener than I thought it would be. The people were very friendly and welcoming.
RT: Uganda had amazing, stunning scenery. I wasn’t expecting that. I suppose in my mind I expected it to be sort of broken down and in need of repair but Uganda is such a noble place with noble and smart people and I just feel like I learned so much from them. Also the music, the singing, many of the places we went they would sing for us, sort of like these call and response songs about water and that “water is life,” we heard that over and over. But the singing was amazing and I really enjoyed listening to them.
What was it like to see AWF wells and projects in person?
AM: It was terrific to see them in person. Of course it makes it more real to see things in person but I was amazed by just how much of a difference the springs and wells make in the communities. The wells bring so much more that clean water for cooking and drinking. The wells are the first step for so many projects within the community. Fishpond, vegetable gardens and fruit drying were projects that we saw firsthand during our visit. All of them could only be implemented because of the wells that AWF had funded. Until I saw these things, I didn’t understand the full impact a well has on a community.
RT: It truly was a humbling experience. I was a donor to AWF before I started volunteering, and I know what it’s like to donate money and sit here in the States and think to myself how great it is that I can help people halfway across the world. Not in a prideful way, but it does feel good to be able to help. But when you’re standing there in front people who are thanking you that their children don’t get sick anymore, when you see that people are able to start businesses because they have access to clean water, it was a very powerful emotion for me to have played a small part in that. It’s still hard to describe what that felt like.
What was the reaction from the Ugandans you spoke with to your visit and the work of AWF?
AM: They were so thankful to have a clean water source. Many of the villages prepared songs and dramas for our visits. One community even broke out into singing and dancing while we were by the well. It was like something out of a movie.
The people in the communities were happy that we visited them. Many of them didn’t speak English but some of them did. One little boy asked me when would we come back and visit them again.
RT: Thankfulness, gratitude. They seemed so happy that we would travel to visit them. They were so moved that people in North America and Europe would reach out to them through AWF.
What’s your greatest memory from the trip?
RT: In Kamunyiga, the elder of the village was showing us the hand pump that AWF had provided and then we asked to see where they used to get their water and we walked for about a kilometer and they took us to this ditch in the ground and it was in a valley where basically the runoff rain from hills collects. It was very stagnant water and there was algae growing on the surface. When we were standing there and the elder turns to me and said, “Now we know you are with us, you have traveled here and you have walked with us.” It was at that moment that I understood the gravity of the trip and of the work AWF has accomplished.
You also took a filmmaker with you. Why was it important to have this trip documented?
AM: We would like to share as much of the experience as we can with the donors who have contributed to the wells. We would also like to have a video that could be used for educational and fundraising purposes.
RT: Steve is a friend of ours who runs his own production company. He was planning his own trip to Africa when we had a discussion about trying to meet up. And since he was going to have all his gear along it was more a matter of “Why not?”
So we started discussing a DVD that AWF could use for informational purposes and for school assemblies. We knew it was going to be a powerful experience to see the impact and the that AWF water projects were making in people’s lives and we hoped to be able to share that with all the people who have volunteered and donated money in the past and also to share that with new people who may just become inspired to get involved.
When do you expect the video of this trip to be available?
RT: Steve’s actually doing some more filming in Washington D.C. with the board members of AWF. A lot of the timing is dependent on Steve’s schedule because he normally has several projects going at once but based on the conversations we been having, I think it could be finished by the end of this year.
What do you hope viewers will get from watching this documentary?
AM: I hope they’ll gain a better understanding of the importance of clean water and know what a huge impact there donations are making in the communities that benefit from the water projects.
RT: If they only get one thing out of it, my hope would be this—that the world is changeable. It’s possible to reach out to a person living in Uganda, Zimbabwe or Angola or in a hundred other places in Africa and change their lives for the better.
How has visiting Africa impacted your work with AWF? Do you plan to visit Africa again?
AM: I would love to visit Africa again. No plans for the moment though.
RT: It certainly has made me want to work harder at getting the word out, at trying to get more people involved. I think that’s the great thing about AWF, that a small group of donors can pool their money together and bring about change to an entire village of people.
As for Africa, I most certainly intend to return as soon as possible.
If so, what would you like to find on your next trip?
AM: I would like to see how the new projects that Africare was able to implement because of the wells are doing and what kind of an impact the wells continue to make in the community. I’d also like to see a well as it’s being built.
RT: Obviously I would want to find more wells in more places. Everywhere we went, people were so grateful but they also made us aware of another village or another school or clinic that could use a well.
Now that you’ve visited Africa, what sort of pitch do you have for potential donors or volunteers?
RT: I would say that every donation, no matter how small, that every $5 or $10 donation truly makes a difference, truly changes people’s lives.
Also, it became very clear to us that a well isn’t just about water, it becomes the basis for Africare to implement several programs such as child nutrition and HIV/AIDS nutrition programs, hygiene and health programs, all of which wouldn’t be possible without access to clean water.
Anything else you’d like to share about your trip?
RT: I fell in love with Uganda. We met so many people who were so beautiful to us, so gracious and kind to us. I’m just extremely grateful and thankful to have been a part of this trip and to have been a part of AWF. I just want to say this again, thank you to each donor, each volunteer, to each board member past and present, to the school kids that are out there collecting pennies and loose change for the work that they have done and for what we will accomplish in the future. I can tell you firsthand that it matters tremendously and it does work.
Also, I’d like to say how proud I am that AWF is affiliated with Africare for basically being AWF’s hands and feet on the ground in Africa. The work they’re doing is hard, long and very difficult to accomplish and they do it with determination and joy. It was an honor to observe such a dedicated group of men and women who have accomplished so much.