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Maryland-based nonprofit works to improve health and sanitation in Zambia
Diplomatic Pouch / July 6, 2015

By Larry Luxner

Manena Ng’ambi is tired of watching her African sisters wake up at 4 a.m. to go fetch water for their fathers, brothers and sons. She’s sad when she hears about children dying from infectious diseases because their mothers didn’t wash their hands.

And she’s angry that in her own country, Zambia, girls cannot keep up with boys in school because they’re forced to miss class during their menstrual cycles — all because rural schools lack bathrooms where students can wash themselves.

Enter WaterEmpowerment.org, a group based in Timonium, Md., that hopes to improve the lives of Zambian girls — and change traditional attitudes in the process.

Ng’ambi formed WaterEmpowerment in December 2012 as a Section 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

“We’re not very good at fundraising,” she conceded. “I believe in getting to the root cause of the problem. So we decided to deal with the issue of hand-washing. We started with something really small, handing out chlorine and soap.”

Among communities in Mpika, her group brought down dysentery cases from 100 to 30 a month. Each village pit latrine now has a “tippy-tap” for hand-washing — improving hygiene for some 20,000 people.

“We’re teaching communities how to make their own soap, because we don’t want them to depend on us forever,” explained Ng’ambi, whose group has five volunteers in Zambia. “Our baseline is women and girl empowerment. We believe in sustainable choices, meaning what can the community do on its own when we’re gone.”

Late last month, Ng’ambi and her friends hosted a fundraiser at Madam’s Organ, a popular nightclub in Washington’s Adams Morgan neighborhood. At the event, she passed out literature and showed off the low-cost water filters and colorful reusable sanitary pads her organization is teaching Zambian women how to make themselves.

“We believe menstrual pads are sustainable. They last about a year, depending on how you take care of it,” she told the Diplomatic Pouch. “The problem is that people don’t talk about menstrual hygiene. We have to work on these taboos.”

Ng’ambi grew up in the capital city, Lusaka, though her native village is Miyombe, in northern Zambia. She came to the United States in 2000 and earned a degree in nursing from Maryland’s Stevenson University. Ng’ambi also studied community and economic development at Penn State, and now works in hospice and home care in both Baltimore and Montgomery County.

“I’ve always been interested in economic development,” she said. “With my nursing education, I went back to school and thought it would be easier if I wrote my paper about water and sanitation. I discovered that I really didn’t know as much as I thought I did. A lot of stuff just didn’t make sense to me.”

One of those things: the fact that Zambia — the home of world-famous Victoria Falls — has so many lakes and rivers, so its 15 million people really shouldn’t be suffering from water shortages.

“The problem is, we don’t have pipes to get all that water to communities,” Ng’ambi said. “Unfortunately, all we have is whatever the British colonialists installed there before independence in 1964.”

As a result, villagers — almost always women and girls, not men — end up walking to those rivers and streams to fetch water in buckets, which they carry on their heads in traditional African style.

“It took us 30 minutes to walk from Mpika village down to the river. But walking uphill takes longer. It also causes back pain,” she explained. “That’s one whole hour just to get that one bucket of water — and the women have been doing this for years. It’s the duty of the girls to fetch water for their dads or their brothers to take a bath, every day.”

And on their way to get that water, girls are often attacked and raped in the darkness — adding to the list of dangers African women face on a daily basis.

“We need to empower women,” she said. “It’s not just a Zambian thing, it’s an African thing. That’s what we’re trying to teach, without being too obvious.”

The issue of menstruation is a touchy one. It’s not something people talk about, especially in conservative African societies. But it affects girls’ education, says Ng’ambi.

“When the girls go to school, there are no bathrooms available. You cannot wash yourself, so a lot of girls choose not to go to school because they can’t clean themselves,” she said. “Boys always score better than girls, because they’re not missing classes.”

Ng’ambi said the Zambian Embassy in Washington has helped connect her group to the country’s Ministry of Gender and Child Development, which “takes us wherever we need to go” within Zambia.

But much more needs to be done.

“Congo is right next to Zambia, and Congo has had Ebola multiple times,” she said. “It sounds really silly and simple, but nurses even here don’t wash their hands. So if it’s hard to teach hand-washing here, in the United States, imagine how hard it is in Zambia, where loads of kids die because their mothers didn’t wash their hands.”

For that reason, she said, WaterEmpowerment.org has plenty of work ahead.

“Unfortunately, in African schools we’re taught that everything the teacher says is right. If he says one plus one is two, that’s the only thing we’re allowed to bring back. We’re not allowed to ask questions,” she said. “So our attempt is not to push anything in their faces, but to encourage them to think.”

Ng’ambi added: “We just want to change the mindset of people. Even if we don’t raise money, at least we’ll raise awareness.”

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