I feel beautiful for the first time
Driving down a bumpy road in the middle of Mekuri village in Pemagatshel, we were kicking up dust as we headed into the rural countryside. I was traveling to evaluate the work of Field Officer, who was looking after the water tank construction and training communities in sanitation and hygiene.
I have a pretty incredible job as a Program Officer; I travel to some of the most desperate places on earth in search of clean water. And while the landscape changes, there’s always one thing that remains the same: the women are always walking. Whether I’m trekking the mountains of Mekuri, taking cover from a rainstorm in rural communities of Pemagatshel, or tramping through the jungles, the women are always carrying water.
From my vantage point in the car, I watch women gather up their children and move to the edge of the road to let us pass. Their feet are gnarled and calloused: a result of thousands of miles walked barefoot over rocks and mud. With babies strapped to their backs, their brightly colored Kira sway and their knees quiver and brace under the weight of water and children. Most balance pails on their shoulders, while some grip 80 pounds of water with sweaty palms, a bright yellow 5-gallon Jerry Can in each hand.
I’m in awe of how they manage. But of course, they have no choice. The average woman in rural communities of Bhutan walks three miles every day for water. Often, it’s water from putrid rivers or disease-infested swamps. Worldwide, women are more than twice as likely as men to collect drinking water.
Moments later, we find ourselves in a clearing and in the middle of a huge celebration. I usually prefer to surprise communities by our arrival because it makes it easier to monitor how our water projects are functioning without number of people watching. But once you visit a few communities in the neighborhood, rumors of your presence spread like wildfire.
We jump out of the car and walk into a party. The women meet us with exuberant cheering and dancing. Pure and loud joy rocks the village.
This is when I met Tashi Lhamo. While most women hung back politely, Helen jumped toward me and screamed two inches from my face. Technically, it was singing. But the high-pitched shrieking was so loud and reverberated with such energy and emotion, I knew I had to talk with her.
She told me about the new freshwater source and tank in her village.
“I am happy now,” beamed. “I have time to eat; my children can go to school. And I can even work in my kitchen garden, take a shower and then come back for more water if I want! I am bathing so well.”
A few of the men chuckled to hear a woman talk about bathing. But all I noticed was Tashi’s glowing face, the fresh flowers smell in her hair, and the lovely green kira she wore for special occasions. Touching her forearm, I replied, “Well, you look great.”
“Yes,” she paused. Placing both hands on my shoulders and smiling, she said, “Now, I am beautiful.”
That really hit me.
My job is to focus on sustainable development, health, hygiene and sanitation; to make sure ch water’s projects are working in years ahead. But nowhere on any of my surveys or evaluations was a place to write, “Today we made someone feel beautiful.”
How Tashi became beautiful is the real story.
Before she had clean water, she would wake up before dawn, take her only two 5-gallon Jerry Cans, and walk almost a mile and a half to the nearest water point, which happened to be at a school. Because there simply wasn’t enough water for the area’s population, she’d wait in line with number of other women who also valued clean water. Tashi’s only other option was to skip the wait and collect contaminated water from a pond.
Tashi spent most of her day walking and waiting. She told me each day she’d say to herself, “How should I use this water today? Should I water my garden so we can grow food? Should I wash my children’s uniforms? Should I use it to cook a meal? Should we drink this water?” With two children, one husband and 10 gallons, Tashi had to make choices.
I saw the shame in her eyes when she described how she would return from her long trek to find her two young children waiting for her. They were often sent home from school because they didn’t complete their homework. Tashi just never had enough water and the children helped mother in collecting water.
I saw now why she was so eager to scream out her joy and gratitude. She wanted me to understand that this gift from the Foundation: water was real. With the new water source and tank in her village, her life was transformed. She now had choices. Free time. Options. Also, Tashi has been chosen to be the Water Committee Treasurer, collecting nominal fees from 51 households to use for the maintenance of their water tank. Water Committees are often the first time women are ever elected to leadership positions in villages.
Last year, Tashi was standing in line waiting for her water. This year, she’s standing up for her community. And now she is beautiful.