MEET IRIS SCHNEIDER, Journalist and former Los Angeles Times photographer

 

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Mpaayon Loboitangu and Iris

I met Iris when she attended the 2015 Splash Bash. She was quite impressed with the work we are doing in Samburu and later approached me about the possibility of visiting Kenya on an upcoming trip.  We kept the conversation going over several months until earlier this spring we put the wheels in motion to travel to Samburu together this summer.  Iris has wanted to do a story on African women for a very long time.  Naturally,  I am thrilled that through TSP her life long dream came true.  (Personally, I was thrilled to have her on our team. I don’t often travel with a journalist.) Together we shared some amazing experiences in Kenya. Here is just a taste.

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Iris stayed with me for a week in Samburu, visiting village after village, talking to hundreds of women about their lives, what it is like to be born into the Samburu tribe, their culture, their rituals, their beliefs and their dreams for themselves and their children. We both received quite an education.

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Fertility is a point of much pride for the Samburu people. It is quite common for women to forego formal education and marry as young as possible so as to start bearing children. A common conversation starter is, “how many children do you have?” When speaking to women at the Lolgerdad well community, we asked if they had any desire or need to learn to read.  At first they said they could never attend school because it was too late, they couldn’t sit in a classroom with their own children.  When then asked, if they would want to learn if they had a special class, just for them, they resoundingly said, YES!  Mpaayon immediately told us, “I would at least like to know how to write my name.”  That simple request started a name writing session that lasted for quite some time. Turned out that everyone wanted to know how to write their name. We found a willing teacher in the crowd by the name of Rose Paula.  She helped us translate and the name writing began!

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Mpaayon Loboitangu writing her name for the first time with assistance from Rose Paula and Jackie.

We’ve heard that Rose has continued her classes with the women of the Lolgerdad village. They’ve borrowed the chalkboard from the local school and are practicing their new skills that way.  They are holding classes three times a week.  TSP has plans to expand their thirst for knowledge when we launch the Samburu Sisters program later this year. 

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Iris spent the day, from sun-up to sun-down with the ladies of the Ntilal well community. They generously invited her into their huts. She collected firewood with the women there, witnessed the slaughter of a goat and yes – walked for water with them. Stay tuned for future articles about her time in Samburu and a possible book later in the year. 

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Hello Aldo

I met Aldo Lesuutia last fall when I spent time at the  the Lekiji community during their well drill.  You might remember reading that Aldo showed up one morning and never left my side. To say that Aldo is an unusual person is a bit of an understatement. Aldo grew up in Samburu East but as a young man, headed for Mombasa where he met and fell in love with an English tourist. They married and he subsequently spent four years living in East London where he was introduced to Chinese and Italian food, the underground, and a vastly different life than he knew in Kenya.  Eventually he returned to his tribal community where he is now married with a new baby and occasionally cooks Italian food for his family.

Aldo is one of the many Samburu volunteers that work directly with TSP in the local community.  He is always available to report on the goings-on in the community and the status of our wells. As you can imagine, Aldo’s understanding of western culture and command of the English language are invaluable to The Samburu Project (and who can resist his smile and keen fashion sense). Aldo sends a big Thank You to all the TSP donors and supporters for the water wells they are providing in Samburu East.

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Saipani and Aldo Lesuutia.

 

 

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Lunch with Elephants

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Samburu is home to some big, beautiful herds of elephants.  Tourists come to Samburu just to see them. When you see elephants in their natural habitat it is exhilarating.  That sight never gets old. They are magnificent creatures.  Here at The Samburu Project, we’ve heard many times that elephants are a major threat to our wells. They need water too and when their highly efficient trunks smell water, they try to get it. It’s terrifying and dangerous for anyone at a well.  Sometimes, where these threats exist, the communities construct a fence of spiky bushes around the well to keep these magnificent creatures at bay.  Imagine our reaction when we came across the site of two elephants having lunch right next to our well near the Sere Olipi Trading Center.

This is a site that is not deep in the bush. In fact, it is right along side a major roadway and close to town.  We were able to get out of the car for a brief well inspection but Eric insisted we not stray too far or call too much attention to ourselves.  Elephants pose a real challenge to our work.   I felt lucky to have witnessed this sight with my own eyes after hearing about it for so many years and am happy to share the photo with our supporters. It is an excellent illustration of the challenges we face working in this remote but beautiful area. 

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Greetings from the Lekiji Well Community

As some of you might remember, last October I spent 5 days with members of the Lekiji Well community as their well was being drilled.  It was a long process. Day after day, we all watched the drill bit go round and round, adding more rods as the borehole got deeper and deeper.  Finally, the water came gushing out!  It was a big day that I shared with the community.  I knew then that doing work for The Samburu Project was a gift – not without challenges but a gift nonetheless.

Now, on my first official visit to Samburu as the Executive Director I wanted to visit the Lekiji well community to see the finished well and witness first hand how the lives of the people there have changed because of the water.  We arrived to find a small group of women doing laundry as the children helped to pump the water.  I was told again and again, “Ashe Oleng” (Thank You)!  “We are so happy that we don’t have to walk far for water anymore!” I am sharing these expressions of gratitude with everyone who supports TSP and especially the ABAR Foundation who sponsored this well.

 

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Lekiji Thank You

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Meet Eric Lekolii, TSP’s Newest Staff Member

With 84 wells and more on the horizon, the area where we work in Samburu East is growing.  We realized that TSP needed more staff on the ground to ensure our wells continue to function properly and offer support to our well communities.  We were very lucky to find Eric Lekolii in early 2016.  

A native of Wamba in Samburu County, Eric is 100% Samburu through and through. Married and the father of three children, he grew up in a traditional Samburu village and knows every tree, bush, valley and village in Samburu.  In addition to his knowledge of all things Samburu, Eric is also a graduate of Nairobi University and a bronze level tour guide.  He spent five years as a guide at the Samburu Sabah Lodge.  Ask Eric the sound a Golden Breasted Starling makes and he’ll tell you along with its scientific name and mating habits. Ask him if he’s ever come face to face with a leopard and he’ll share a good story with you.  Spending time with Eric on this trip was quite a treat. 

Eric first knew about The Samburu Project when we put a well near his village in 2007. Now, he is quickly becoming the second face of TSP on the ground as our new Field Manager. Engaging in this type of work requires a unique skill set; first of all they must be Samburu, speak the language and have the trust of the people, have a knowledge of wells and mechanical issues is equally important, being able to communicate with our California staff and pass on information to our donors are all important traits.  We found all of the things and more in Eric.  We are thrilled to welcome Eric to our Kenya team on the ground and I can’t wait for you to meet him in person.

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Eric Lekolii (left) with TSP Project Manager, Lucas Lekwali. (Photo courtesy of Iris Schneider)

 

Bonus Fun Fact: Just one of the fun facts we learned from Eric during our long bush drives; we all know the “Big Five” to look for when on safari: Rhino, Buffalo, Lion, Leopard and Elephant.  Can you name the Little Five?  Hint: their names bear resemblance to their larger namesakes. (The rhino beetle, buffalo weaver, ant lion, leopard tortoise and elephant shrew).

 

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Mzungu, How Are You?

In Swahili the word “mzungu” means a foreigner, usually a white person.  It can be used in a derogatory manner, but when I hear it from an adorable little girl in a purple dress, smiling and waving to me as our 4Wheel drive speeds by her hut on a dirt road, I am delighted to smile and wave back. She means no insult. The fact that she speaks English to me means she is reaching out, wanting to connect with a foreigner in her home. I am flattered and wonder, sincerely, how am I?

It’s been four months since I became the Executive Director of The Samburu Project (TSP) and I have been in high gear ever since. Volunteering for TSP had been my pet project and hobby for more than 5 years before it became my job. In between our Walk for Water, re-vamping our website and going through my first financial audit, I’ve been asked several times, what makes TSP different than other water charities? There are so many water charities as there is such a tremendous need around the world for clean water. We all know we aren’t as big as Charity Water or Water.org but with 84 wells and providing water to more than 80,000 people, TSP has done some fantastic work in ten years.

In addition to providing clean water, eradicating death from water-borne diseases, and sending more girls to school, the fact that people around the world are connected through TSP is something of which I am particularly proud. As the director of an art gallery for so many years, one of the things I loved most about being in the art world was the people I met along the way. The artists, collectors, scholars, writers, who became friends and brought their gifts and talents into my world was something I absolutely LOVED about being a part of the art community. As the ED of TSP, I am finding a similar sense of community in our work.

Our interns and volunteers who are so young and passionate and want to change the world inspire me every day.  Kiki Swanson, my right hand and “gal Friday” has made the ED transition as smooth as silk.  Not only is she organized and capable of 101 things at once, because of her passion for all things African, she has connected her family and friends from all over the country to TSP.  Our staff in Kenya who know every bush, hill, tree, manyatta and family in Samburu impress me immeasurably. Lucas and Eric each speak Samburu, Swahili and English and probably more languages than that. They know how to survive in the bush and get the car moving when it’s stuck or broken. They are diplomats in the community, engineers in well maintenance and are the face and voice of TSP in Kenya.  The donors are our lifeline. Without them, there would be no water, no sense of community, no TSP. The lives they lead as global citizens give us all purpose to do the work – and some of them are art collectors! The people I have met since becoming involved in TSP have already enriched my life in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

Now, that I am in Kenya, in Samburu on my first official visit, I am meeting the people in village after village whose lives have been changed because of TSP, and that feeling of connecting is stronger than ever. When we roll up to a village in the TSP truck, people come to meet us to say “Ashe Oleng” (thank you in Samburu) and begin to sing and dance as is their way of saying thank you. I want to share that feeling of connectedness with everyone back in the states and UK. We are all connected through this small but mighty organization. As the Dalai Lama said in a lecture I attended before leaving LA to come to Kenya, “we must respect and love eachother, we are all inhabiting this small blue planet.” Through TSP, I truly feel the power of that sentiment.

So when people ask me why TSP is different than the other water charities, I answer that we are a charity that truly connects people, connects them through water, around the globe, on our tiny blue planet. And in answer that that little Samburu girl in the purple dress, this “muzungu” is great, happy to be in this place, right here, right now.

I hope you will stay tuned and continue reading my “Samburu Stories” as I share my adventures in Kenya with all of our TSP friends and family.

Ashe Oleng

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Members of the TSP team for this trip (left to right): Me, Eric Lekolii (TSP Kenya Team), Brendan Curran (Intern), Lucas Lekwale (TSP Project Manager, Kenya Team), Iris Schneider (Journalist and former Los Angeles Times photographer) and the members of the Lolgerdad well community near Archer’s Post, Samburu County, Kenya.

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Linda’s Samburu Story #7 (the epilogue)

So many people ask me what it’s “really” like in Kenya.  What is the food like?  Is it safe? In closing, I want to let everyone know that it is beautiful and the people are wonderful and welcoming.  The food is delicious, sometimes with an Indian twist (samosas and chipatis – yummy!).  Kenyan cuisine includes a lot of soup and stews; chicken, beef, lamb are all common and the produce is all  fresh, hormone and preservative-free. I never felt in danger or on guard while I was there. I will warn that you must be open to things working in their own way and you should be open to the experience to fully enjoy yourself.

The staff of the Sarova Shaba Lodge was wonderful and most accommodating during my stay there. They are all waiting for friends of TSP to visit.   The lodge itself is located on the banks of the Ewaso Ngiro River located within the Samburu National Park. Consequently, getting to and from the lodge was like a mini game drive with many beautiful animals to be seen right along the road, not to mention a local “duty free” shop.  Sadly, we neglected to bring “bathing costumes” because they have a lovely pool but we did avail ourselves of the equally welcoming bar.

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The airport is really a landing strip, waiting area and an airport shop run by local entrepreneurs.  Air Kenya flies there to drop off and pick up passengers once a day. It takes a little more than an hour to Nairobi, a little more if they are making other stops.

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Here is a view from the air of the lodge where you can see dry landscape with a thicket of green trees alongside the river.  Within that lush green patch is the Sarova Shaba Lodge. You can see the old lava flow which we drove over to get to the “tar mack” road.

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My new friend Carol from AirKenya also wants our TSP friends to know that they are eager to meet us.

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All in all, visiting Kenya is an amazing experience, one that is full of surprises.  I didn’t even have a chance to tell you about my midnight rendez-vous with an elephant outside my room on the bank of the river, the tame oryx we met, or Daliana Lekilua a girl with a beautiful smile who goes to school in Archer’s Post so she can be a teacher when she grows up.   I’ll just encourage you to go discover “beautiful Kenya” for yourself.  Until then, if you’ve enjoyed these photos and stories, think about supporting The Samburu Project and changing someone’s life forever!

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Linda’s Samburu Story #6

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I am up early and head out for what surely will be BIG WATER day.  Lucas arrives and reports that things are progressing well and that big water is waiting for us.  As we arrive at the site, I can already see water starting to flow from the drill. After about an hour, Charles can tell we are hitting the second aqua fir.  We all stand in the ready, old men, kids, our crew, waiting for the moment.  Anticipation is building, camera is ready, we are all focused on the drill and the wet soil.

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More drips, more drips until THERE IT IS!!!  A huge gush of water begins to pour out of the drill!  It sprays us and the kids start to smile and laugh and the old men have a look of astonishment! Paul and I hug with relief and joy in our hearts.  The Likitje well has water! As I watched the water flow, I thought back to Splash Bash 2014 and all our friends in Santa Monica and elsewhere who support our work.  I wish they were here to share this moment.

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It didn’t take but about 10 minutes before people started showing up with their jerry cans. Lucas explained to them that we still have much work to do; pour a concrete pad, install the actual pump, test the water and put a fence around it, before it would be ready to use. It didn’t matter, knowing water would be clean and available was cause for joyous celebration.  Once again, I was serenaded and danced with in celebration of this glorious day!

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Oh what Joy!   I think about the long process that Lucas, Paul and Karioke (our hydro-geologist) went through all year to identify the well locations.  I think of Kristen and Kiki who work so hard in the Santa Monica office; the board who are giving their time and constantly pitching the TSP case for support to their friends to keep the organization going.  I think of the countless volunteers who do whatever is asked of them to pitch in, and the well funders who make it all happen.  I think of them all at this exact moment.  In the course of the last year, there have been so many people who have played a role in making this moment happen, people who might never know each other but are a part the The Samburu Project.  All of these people ARE the Samburu Project.  My heart is full with the feeling that we did this!

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I also can’t help but think of the communities in Samburu who have applied to TSP for a well and are still waiting. I am thinking about these little babies, knowing that because of us, they will grow up without ingesting waterborne diseases on a daily basis, that they will go to school and grow up and chase their dreams, just like us.  I am hoping that our good fortune will continue for the remaining 9 wells we are going to drill this year and beyond.  I am hopeful that TSP will grow and thrive for the next 10 years.  But for now, in this moment, my heart is full with the knowledge that we did this!  I’m so lucky to have been here, on the other side of the globe to meet these people and share this moment with them.  Water is Life! Drink it up!

 

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Linda’s Samburu Story #5

You hear the words “pole-pole (pronounced po-lay, po-lay)” a lot in Kenya.  This translates as “slowly slowly” but said with the right intonation in the voice, it also means, “I’m so sorry things are taking so long.”  I am beginning to understand the true meaning in which these words are spoken. With all the delays on the front end of the trip, the well drill is running longer than originally scheduled and I am supposed to be on a plane back to Nairobi today.  Needless to say, I will not be on the 11am Air Kenya flight.  I try calling our travel agent but it is Sunday and their office isn’t open.  I explain my predicament to one of the helpful managers at Sarova Lodge.  He replies “pole pole.” He also remembers that there is an Air Kenya agent staying in the lodge. He will speak with her and sort it out for me while I am in the bush today.  There is also another expression in Kenya that says things will work out.  With that in mind, off I go..BIG WATER day awaits!!!

Out of the lodge, past the giraffe, through the gate, over the lava road, past a lone elephant, onto the tar mak road, zoom past Archer’s Post as I’ve done every day. However, today is not like every other day.  Almost at our turnoff, I see 6 beautifully adorned young ladies in their Sunday finest on the opposite side of the road waiting for the bus. Hold the phone!  Turn the car around! I ask Robert, my driver to translate for me.  Where are they going?  Church and then shopping in Archer’s Post, they reply.  Do they mind if I take their photo as they are looking so beautiful?  They don’t mind at all.  We have some fun taking photos and as we get ready to leave, I get the gist of a conversation that we just came through Archer’s Post and are going the opposite direction.  I tell Robert of course we have time to drive them to church and just like that, our car is now carrying six Samburu girls who sing a song of thanks that seems to have no beginning and no end over 10 kilometers to Archer’s Post.   It’s a good morning in Samburu.

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Back on the road to the drilling site.  You can hear the drilling as we get closer.  We arrive to see the uniforms of the crew hanging out to dry.  The usual suspects who I have come to recognize are congregating around, including Aldo.  Aldo, a Samburu man 40 years old spent four years living in East London married to an English woman before moving back to this area.  He speaks perfect English and tells me how much he loves Chinese and Italian food.

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Also is photographed on the left.

Insofar as it seems the drilling will be going on for a while today, he asks if I want to see where the people get water in this area. Of course I do!  Off we walk about 1/2 mile where I can see a tiny boy down in a hole.  Aldo asks to see the water he is bringing up.  He shows us a cup of brown, dirty liquid that will most likely be filled with waterborne bacteria causing diarrhea.  I have seen photos of similar sites many times over the past 5 years but seeing this in person was a painful dose of reality.

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Walking back to the site, it is HOT!  The sun is sweltering in this area.  Sweat is dripping off me from everywhere.  I feel I can’t complain or even comment about it.  I can’t help but imagine walking out here carrying a jerry can full of water in this heat.  I try to steer our walking under the shade of the trees but there are so many thorns that prick my pants and even pierce through my sneakers that it is impossible.  All in all, this little walk is a real reminder of why we do what we do at The Samburu Project.

The texture of the earth is changing around the drill rig.  It is sandy and wet, water is starting to migrate to the top of the rods and soil out onto the earth. Lucas says the big water is coming but we still have several rods to insert until we get to 70 meters.  Pole-Pole.  Aldo asks if I want to see his house, meet his Samburu wife and father who is more than 100 years old.  Sure!  As we enter through the thorny barrier of the manyatta, there are chickens and kids killing around and then OMG..I couldn’t believe my eyes.  Sitting next to his hut was a small solar panel, inside the hut was a table with about 10 cell phones that were being recharged from the solar panel. I was absolutely amazed to learn that these Samburu who are 90% illiterate were so technologically advanced to have cell phones and solar panels.  Why shouldn’t they have clean water, an education, and good health & hygiene?

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Waiting and drilling, drilling and waiting.  Back at the site, we still have not hit the BIG WATER yet.  I met some very resourceful boys who fashioned a toy out of discarded plastic. Aside from thinking that recycling is alive and well in Samburu, I notice the boy who was gathering water in the hole is with us on site.  Wearing his christmas bear pants, he smiles and I wonder how this water will change his future.

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No BIG WATER today so back to the lodge I go, where much to my delight there were big happenings going on.  At reception I found no one, at the bar I found no one but a little farther a field I could see everyone at the hotel gathered at the riverbank watching a heard of 30 elephants across the river.  They were absolutely magnificent!  Big huge bulls, little babies, all grazing and drinking from the river, putting on a fantastic show for the lodge guests and staff.  We stood watching and taking photos for about an hour until they disappeared back to where they came from.  What an absolutely fantastic treat!

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Despite the fact that today turned out not to be big water day, it was wonderful.  I pinched myself for all the amazing experiences I’ve had here in Samburu and think how grateful I am for everything that has brought me to this moment.  That night I dined with Carol from AirKenya. She sorted out my ticket and said I could take whatever flight was good for me tomorrow or the next day.  Imagine that!  Another Samburu surprise.  Everything is going to work out..but a little pole-pole.

 

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Linda’s Samburu Story #4

I wake up early to the sound of monkeys outside my room and I am excited because today is the big day, the day we start drilling!  I eat my breakfast and eagerly await my ride.  Lucas texts to say they are still setting up the rig, so no need to get to the site early.  UGH! I am itching to be part of the activities but instead I enjoy a second cup of tea and chat with the staff at the Sarova Shaba Lodge. Did I know this was the spot of the home of Joy and George Adamson?  This is the birthplace of Elsa and her beautiful lion cubs.  Memories of watching “Born Free” when I was a littlel girl drift through my brain and I temporarily forget about the drilling. This place is so beautiful.  I had no idea how beautiful it would be.  Lucas texts again, more delays..so I wait.

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Sarova Lodge has a resident naturalist named Chady.  He offers to give me a Samburu 101 Powerpoint presentation about the Samburu people, culture and land.  I learned how they and the Masai tribe are related, both part of the Maa people.  They originally came south from Somalia.  Part of the clan stayed in Samburu and some kept migrating south and ended up in the Mara.  He explained their culture, rituals and their defined structure of their “manyattas” (the Samburu work for their enclosed communities of huts.  Do you know that the earring and long chain in a women’s ear is the equivalent of a wedding ring in western culture?  It was all fascinating but now I am really itching to get out into the bush with the team

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Finally I am picked up, leave the lodge, drive past the giraffe, go through the gate, over the lava road, past some baboons, jump on the “tar mack road” (as the locals call the highway here), through Archer’s Post, off onto a red clay path for about another 20 minutes (are those camels in the distance? Yes.) until finally I see the rig!  WaterLink is here! Lucas welcomes me to the site, shows me the exact spot where drilling will commence.  All the while, there is a growing group of children beginning to congregate around me to see who the stranger is.  As Lucas briefs me, the crew is collecting big rocks to use underneath 4 big pads to steady and level the rig.  This is a very precise operation.  The drill must go into the earth at exactly 90 degrees.  This takes a while.  After much leveling, the rig is finally in place.  The drilling apparatus is raised and it hits a tree branch.  One of the crew (I’m assuming the one who drew a short straw) is hoisted up on the rig with a huge machete (or “panga” as it is called here) to trim back the imposing branches.  With that done, we are finally ready to start!

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Drilling is LOUD and DUSTY!  There are various people standing around watching the drill “hammer” as it begins to penetrate the earth.  Lucas explains that the crew will put the hammer (drill bit) then a succession of 15 rods that are 20 meters on top of each other to get down to 70 meters.  Slowly, slowly the drilling starts and slowly, slowly we see the rod disappear into the ground and another screwed on top of it.  And so the drilling begins.  It seems to me to be tedious work for Charles, the foreman.  While the process is so slow and seemingly hypnotic, he concentrates on the earth that the drill is spitting out, watching for signs of moisture.  The kids and various elders pass by to check on the progress or stick around to watch.   Eventually a soccer game breaks out, young girls scurry by collecting firewood, people come and go and life goes on as the drilling hammers away.

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Everyone settles into a bit of a routine as the hammer pounds the rods into the ground, drilling deeper until at 30 feet we hit fir first aqua fir and a sandy, slushy water comes shooting out.  Our geological report predicted this but it’s so reassuring to see it happen.  Everyone is excited. More drilling will commence until it gets dark but I have to get back to the lodge before then.  The crew will sleep and eat out in the bush until the job is done. I say good night to the crew and locals and call it a day. Tomorrow – BIG WATER (I hope)!

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This boy was able to take a nap right near the well drilling.  That’s some real fomo!

 

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