When Michigan first announced quarantine orders, my wife and I looked for every way to avoid going out. We canceled our plans, stocked up on groceries and hunkered down. Except for the lack of childcare, I was able to do almost all my work from home. I was prioritizing our safety and minimizing exposure risk at every opportunity.
On our March call with the Rwandan team, we weren’t surprised to hear that Rwanda was also under lock-down.
My first concern was for our volunteers and leaders in remote villages where access to healthcare and hygiene items is very limited. Some families don’t have consistent access to soap, let alone face masks.
The team told us that work was on hold. The government banned non-essential travel and no one knew when restrictions would be lifted. We were at a stand-still.
There were always glimmers of hope. The case counts in Rwanda are low. Their public health system is performing well – they have been able to isolate and contact trace positive cases with enviable accuracy. But, the remote villages were still going to struggle if an outbreak occurred. And, there were still an estimated 30% of the population unable to work because of the shuttered economy. As time went on things looked grim and there was real fear that the situation would get worse.
I expected every update call to sound the same: still no progress towards our goals, falling farther behind on distributions that would give people access to clean water. And yet, I was consistently wrong.
In one of the early calls, our team shared that volunteers were checking up on families by text message, asking how filters were working and providing maintenance advice. We also heard stories of local officials giving volunteers permission to occasionally visit families whose filters were not working well.
I was struck by a comment our Program Manager, Rebero, made: “our volunteers know how important this work is, they are trying everything to continue in any way possible.”
In mid-May, World Relief was able to obtain face masks. They distributed them to our volunteers so they could resume some of their work. We got photos of our teams hard at work with face masks in place.
I was struck by the story these photos tell.
Our volunteers are so committed to the change that clean water brings to their communities, that they were truly trying everything to continue “in any way possible.” I imagined them petitioning their local officials, asking for permission to break quarantine, not so they could earn their wages [most of our volunteers are day-laborers], but so they could perform maintenance checks, wash sand, and prepare more filters for distribution.
In spite of a grim economic future, a health crisis worse than those they’d experienced before (and they had experienced them before, with SARS, Cholera and Ebola), their focus was on their community, their neighbors, and the relief they could bring through water filters and training.
They recognized the risks, they followed all the precautions, but they also looked for ways to help.
It reminded me so much of the Mr. Rogers’ quote that in times of crisis, “look for the helpers”. I am so proud that our volunteers sought to be helpers. And I’m challenged by their resolve. It was easy for me to just focus on what I could stop doing, but the message of our volunteers’ commitment is to also focus on what we all can still do, how we can still be helpers, even in the face of crisis.
From the Field Notes of Chip Kragt. Chip was hired as the Managing Director for 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 their two children in Grand Rapids, MI.