Gilbert Tuhabonye tells the story often: As a boy growing up in Burundi, he walked 3 miles at least once every day to fill a plastic jug with drinking water for his family.
So did his neighbors and classmates and friends. All that walking and hauling took it’s toll: Exhausted kids at school, disease spread by people drinking unsanitary water, time that could be spent more productively consumed by filling and carrying jugs.
At the Run for the Water on Sunday, I got a tiny taste of what Tuhabonye experienced when he lived in Africa, and what thousands of other people there still do today. I walked the race’s 5K route (there’s also a 10-miler) as part of a team of 12, trading off duty carrying water jugs.
The jugs weren’t even filled to capacity. When they’re full, they weigh 48 pounds. Ours were probably half full, and they sloshed around with each step.
We started 5 minutes before the elite runners, and formed a single file line at the side of the road. Every quarter of a mile or so, I traded off with my partner, Alex Pasadyn. Each team had a hand-made fabric donut-shaped cushion, to make carrying the jugs on our heads a little easier.
We quickly learned it wasn’t just about the load – it was about holding our arms above our heads to make sure the jugs stayed in place. That got tiring. And once, during a trade-off, I dropped my jug on the ground. This morning, I felt the effects of our 50-minute hike in my neck and shoulders.
Walking with the water reminded me how easy we have it here in Austin. Most of us walk only a few steps to the nearest sink or spigot, where a flick of the handle delivers clean, fresh water. It’s hard to imagine anything else.
For us, yesterday’s walk was a sweaty workout. For the people of Burundi who still don’t have water, it’s a daily task.
“Powerful visual!” one woman called out as she ran past.
Burundi has the 12th highest child mortality rate in the world because of a lack of clean drinking water, according to the website of the Gazelle Foundation, the non-profit organization co-founded by Tuhabonye. Waterborne contaminants are the leading cause of death.
The Run for the Water is the organization’s biggest fund-raiser of the year, and about 4,000 people participated in yesterday’s event, its 11th. So far the non-profit organization has installed 120 miles of water pipe to deliver clean water to more than 70,000 people in neighborhoods, schools, hospitals and churches in Burundi.
I hope seeing our team walking along the course with water jugs brought home the meaning of the race for the runners. I know it did for me.