It was our last day visiting the outlying sectors. We went to a small, but densely populated little village in Juru. We visited an elderly widow, Gloria, who greeted us at the door with an energy and enthusiasm that belied her age and apparent fragility. Gloria rearranged furniture and took a seat right next to her SAM3 household filter. Her smile never faltered as we asked her about her life and her family.
Through our interpreter, Paradi, I asked Gloria why she was selected to receive a filter. Gloria’s smile, somehow, got wider. She began speaking so fast that Paradi had to ask her to slow down. After a few minutes, Paradi summarized:
“She was chosen because she knows all of her neighbors since they were young. She is always inviting them to come and visit her. Then she prays with them, she shares the gospel with them each time, even if they already believe. She encourages them. When she was told she could receive a filter, she rejoiced because she could now provide encouragement and clean water to her visitors. Every day, she brings men and women and children to hear the gospel and drink clean water.”
“She was chosen because everyone knows that her home is always open and visitors are always welcome.”
This isn’t a random question. About a year into my career with 20 Liters, in order to verify during our visits that we were indeed reaching people who fit our categories of “most vulnerable”, I started asking families this question. I didn’t get the answers I expected.
When I thought of the question, I expected people to say things that match my perceptions of them, to verify their place in one of our categories.
“Because, I am old and cannot work.”
“I lost my child and husband in the genocide.”
“Because, I was born with HIV.”
“I am in this wheelchair.”
Instead, people see their own value reflected in their selection:
“I live near the river, so people can stop to filter their water here.”
“The people in my village trust me and feel safe coming to my home.”
“I bring my filter to community events so everyone can use it.”
“The volunteers knew I was generous and willing to share my water with everyone.”
It’s easy for us to talk about our recipients in categories. We have pledged to serve the “most vulnerable”: those with disabilities, survivors of the ’94 genocide, people living with HIV/AIDS. It’s easy for us to tell local communities that “we want these filters to go to the most vulnerable families”. But, to sit with a widow and say “you are receiving this filter because you are poor” is complicated. It exposes our own biases and preconceptions.
Our leadership often wrestles with reconciling our ideals of egalitarianism, equality, justice, fairness, with the realities we face. We think critically about empowerment and enablement, about honoring, about seeing value instead of lack.
I no longer ask this question to try and find out if we’re serving the most vulnerable. I ask in order to remind myself that we are equipping valuable, skilled people with a resource that they can use to better their families and communities.
This is the way they see themselves, and it is the truth.
From the Field Notes of Chip Kragt. Chip was hired at 20 Liters in August of 2015. Chip is passionate about the humanitarian right to basic necessities and breaking the cycle of poverty. He and his wife are raising two daughters in Grand Rapids, MI.