When Thirst Project does a donor trip to Swaziland (where donors such as Allie and I get to see the donations in action), they cap the week off with a visit to South Africa’s Kruger National Park. “It’s a nice way to unwind, after…” we were told.
“…after…” After one has witnessed angry-faced children carrying the day’s water on top of their heads fetched from a crocodile-infested river where they risk being eaten or drowned on a daily basis? After one has learned that most of the world’s population has more cell phones than drinkable water? After one has spent most of the hours in a day cramped into a van with eight other strangers debating the existance of God over clashing music from both front and back? After being proposed to three times by mothers wanting to marry off their sons to the white-but-not-too-white girl? “I will teach you how to cook,” one of these mothers told me, “and you will cook for all of us!” All I could manage was a that’s-a-good-one half-laugh.
Yes, after all of that and more, a day to unwind on a real African safari and let out all the laughter that had been stifled throughout the week for propriety’s sake was a must. When I get really nervous or put on the spot, like a lot of people I want to laugh. It’s either that or cry, or abandon post. Abandoning post wasn’t an option most of the time—I couldn’t just bolt back to the van when Juliet told me her eyes had turned blue from The Disease (AIDS—see previous post). Laughter would have been just wrong when a woman at another village asked me, very directly, “Will you help us?” Crying was encouraged, but I had no tears.
Actually, I take that back. I cried once on this trip, and the reason why is kind of fucked up when you put into the entire context of all the things that could’ve—perhaps even should’ve—made me cry… It wasn’t the rail-thin orphans. It wasn’t the widows and widowers. It wasn’t even the overwhelming gratitude that was expressed to us by entire communities whose lives Thirst Project has unquestionably changed. It was the dogs. Here I am on a trip dedicated to helping out people who are just tying to live, literally, and I’m sobbing in my bed on an early Thursday morning about the inhumane treatment of village dogs.
When I hear an animal yelping in pain at the hands of humans, I hear another being giving voice to the pain I bury inside, also at the hands (and words) of humans. It unglues me, maybe because I wish I could cry out like that, and have my cries matter enough to someone to incite action and help. When I see a cat in captivity going so crazy that it’s gnawing off its own parts, it triggers the panic response in me that wants to do the same. Unlike people, animals can’t use words; they act, honestly. Their honesty compells me in a way a human’s words never could, for the words humans use are often manipulative, misinterpretable, and fleeting. When I help an animal, I am helping some wordless, frightened, wounded, trapped, voiceless part of myself. Some feel this gratification from helping other people. I don’t most of the time.
That’s why when I watched a teenage Swazi boy whip a skinny golden-red dog with a stick so hard that the dog’s yelp made my vision go blurry and my heart freeze and my equilibrium distort, tears sprung to my eyes. I vaguely heard another team member subtly tell me something along the lines of, “Don’t react, this is normal here and these dogs are not pets.” What I gathered from that was not to do anything stupid like grab a stick myself and whip the boy with it, because it might endanger not only me, but the whole Thirst Project team and the organization in general. “Actress Goes Berserk on Mission to Swaziland; Thirst Project Sued for Death of 13-Year-Old Boy, Beaten for Whipping Local Village Dog”. So, to the amazement of myself, I managed to stuff away my tears and let them out later. I could’ve laughed or abandoned post, I suppose, but I didn’t.
When my vision restabilized, I looked around to see if I was the only one disturbed by what had just happened. If I wasn’t, I couldn’t have known. Allie and Deb were playing with the kids. Katie and Sam were getting footage of a young man carving wood by burning it with hot iron. Seth was talking to what appeared to be village elders-in-charge, while Amber, Jason, Sibu, and I listened. Deliberately taking my mind off the dog, who had run away tail between his legs, all skin and bones of him, I plunged into learning the nuts and bolts of how Thirst Project works. I love nuts and bolts, nitty gritty details, contingencies, and how-to’s. Sometimes all the questions I ask come off as a negative attack to those who don’t have a plan yet, but who love to talk big about their dreams to save the __________. I’m just trying to learn so I can decide whether or not I want to assist someone’s efforts, and I get peeved when activists wax tragically poetic, yanking my heart strings, but can’t or won’t answer my questions about how exactly they’re going to go about doing the things they say they plan on doing. Don’t ask for my money or support if you’re not willing to answer my questions, I want to tell these folks.
Not Seth Maxwell. Thirst Project, which he is the founder of, is a well-oiled machine, a transparent, proactive, true non-profit. As the hot African sun beat down on us, Seth patiently aswered any questions that came to my mind. We’d found this village by accident. We’d been on the riverbank collecting footage of villagers who already had a well that Thirst Project built when we noticed a group of about ten to twelve unsmiling children staring at us from the woods. They’d come to collect water, and we were all wondering why they were still collecting water from the murky river when there was a perfectly good well nearby that we’d just been to. As it turns out, these were children from another homestead, which I came to interpret as a village. Their homestead wasn’t able to use the well because it was too far away compared to the closeness of the river. This unexpected encounter led us to follow these children through black mamba-laced paths so we could talk to their elders about possibly building them their own well. You know that statistic I mentioned about how more people have cell phones than they do clean water? I saw the bright side of that statement in action when one of the elders used her mobile to make a call to someone who knew the approximate number of people in this region who could use a well. 500-600, we found out. “So they qualify for a well then, right?” I asked Seth, who had told me that mid-hundred-and-up figure populations got priority. “Yes,” he said, glancing up at me with a smile as he continued to jot down notes on his iPhone. So, it’s looking like they’ll get a well in about a year or so. First, I learned from Seth, the total homestead population needs to be verified. Secondly, hydrogeologists need to come and assess the area to pick exactly where the well would be best built, given the soil and the distances of all the homesteads who will use it. Then the real activity starts. Forgive me for not being able to accurately recap all the nitty gritties of this crucial step; engineering lingo was never my strong suit. The final result, regardless, is clean, drinkable water. Apparently AIDS isn’t the biggest killer in Africa; it’s waterbourne illnesses that HIV leaves peoples’ immune systems vulnerable to.
Now, I don’t think of myself as an advocate or activist of any kind. I don’t like publically associating myself with organizations for many reasons, mainly because I don’t like making statements that will provoke hypocrisy accusations. (Hypothetical example: publically supporting PETA while driving in a car with a leather interior.) Yes, I’m a hypocrite. We all are. I just don’t like the redundant drama of being publically provoked into defending my hypocrisy, so like all things in my life, I try to pick my battles carefully. Anonymous giving is the way to go for me, because I think it helps keep me pure. When I give anonymously, I don’t have to question if my motives are really just to look good to others, to have bragging rights, to keep up a public image of being a generous celebrity… (Hell, I’m not even a celebrity, but for the fans I have, I care about what messages I put out that may instigate elaboration.) Giving anonymously is simultaneously selfish, because I also don’t want to be quesitoned. Interviews on abstract topics are positively dreadful to me, as I’m horrible at coming up with sound bytes because my thoughts and speech are often non-linear, particularly about things I care about. When I went to Thirst Project’s fund raising gala this past spring, I didn’t intend for it to be known that I was donating to help fund a well. But it became known, so I rolled with it, and in this case I’m glad I did because now I’m getting to share with you my experiences in Swaziland.
K, I’m going to do something I don’t normally do and add that if you want to donate to Thirst Project, go here. (I’ve always hated asking for money, whether it was by selling Girl Scout cookies or doing a marathon walk for some disease.) I respect and love that we are all passionate about different causes, so if you’ve maxed out your donation budget someplace else, even if that someplace is yourself, I get it. However, if you are inspired to learn more about Thirst Project and you’d like to help them make more wells, please visit their website. Any money you donate goes directly to building wells. The overhead costs, such as administration, merchandise, etc., are already covered by separate donations. That was the tipping point that got me to donate in the first place, and what I donated went straight to a well that is in the process of being built in Uganda, which I’m excited to visit one day. And if you yourself might one day like to go on a Thirst Project adventure like the one I’ve been describing, email them about opportunities to volunteer and learn more. I like seeing my money in action, so might you. Besides getting to interact with people in another culture who will remind you of how different-yet-the-same we are as humans, if you go to Swaziland you might also get to see the five-legged elephant yourself. You know, to shake off all the depression the Third World can leave you with.