Water Warrior

Erin Huber spent 11 weeks in Uganda with the goal of bringing fresh drinking water to the schoolchildren in the village of Mulajje. Some would call that a success; she calls it a start.

Editor’s Note: Laura Watilo Blake, who has been writing and taking photographs for Lake Erie Living since 2007, volunteered her time to travel with Huber to Uganda and help produce a documentary on the project (see sidebar).

Growing up on Lake Erie, Clevelander Erin Huber has always loved the water. “When I’m out in the middle of the lake on a sailboat, I’m not thinking about what’s waiting for me back on land, because I’m literally removed from it,” she says.

       That is, until she sees a plastic water bottle float by.

       Huber is the founder and executive director of the non-profit Drink Local Drink Tap. It’s her goal to teach Clevelanders — with an emphasis on the city’s youth — ways to reduce plastic waste and keep it from getting into the water supply.

Kicking the water-bottle habit, she says, is one of the easiest things to do. But it can accomplish so much — the protection of humankind’s most precious natural resource.

“It’s not a lot to ask,” Huber adds. “Tap water comes right into our homes and buildings already treated.”

For 1.1 billion other people, that is not the case. “They — often times school-aged children — must walk long distances to fetch water and carry it back to their homes,” Huber says. “It’s not uncommon for a seven-year-old to carry five gallons at a time. It’s exhausting.”

Huber set out to teach Cleveland school kids what it’s like to live without access to clean water. On World Water Day (March 22) in 2010, she organized the first walk for water in the city. At every World Water Day and speaking engagement since, she brings a day’s worth of water in a canary-yellow, five-gallon jerrican (the name for the ubiquitous container used in Africa) for kids to pick up and attempt to carry.

“Most of the time, I get a ‘Whoa!’ says Huber. “They’re surprised and shocked by how heavy it is, but after that, they start to get the picture.”

         Through events like that, Huber was indeed making people aware of the issue, but she wanted to do more. She knew what more was, the minute she met Teddy Mwonyonyi, a native Ugandan teaching in the Cleveland school system. Mwonyonyi’s students were already communicating with school kids in a rural village called Mulajje. The Ugandan students would walk 2.5 miles twice a day to fetch water — sometimes even further if the source was dry. They were often sick with water-borne illnesses because they didn’t have time to boil the water to make it drinkable before classes started in the morning. Most of them had never turned on a tap or flushed a toilet.

 “They deserve clean water just as much as we do,” says Huber, who devised a plan to raise money for a new water source — called a borehole — on the school grounds. “I can’t imagine living in fear of drinking dirty water that might kill me.”

In July 2011, Huber set off on the first of two trips that would total 11 weeks to Mulajje, Uganda. She brought two filmmakers with her to help turn the project into a documentary (see sidebar).

The first step was to hire a local contractor to determine if a source of pure, clean could be found somewhere on school property. Luckily, water was there — somewhere deep underground in an aquifer.

The news was a relief to everyone at the school. The 600 students would have to wait to get water until enough money was raised to start drilling, but they now had hope.

For the rest of the trip, Huber and her crew gathered film footage, conducted interviews with local and regional officials, taught classes at the primary school and bonded with the villagers, despite a limited grasp of the local language beyond a few greetings and civilities. Huber made funny faces when she played with the kids, who erupted in laughter.

The people Huber met offered her what little they had, whether it was a fresh mango plucked right from the tree in their yard or a heaping portion of mashed bananas, the staple food consumed at every meal. She returned the favor by carrying filled jerricans from the watering hole.

It took another full year to raise $30,000 to return and follow through on the promise Huber made to the village of Mulajje. Most of the money for the borehole came from philanthropic individuals, businesses and organizations. But Huber also contributed money out of her own pocket, even though she was struggling to pay bills at home.

         “My troubles are small compared to what the average African has to deal with,” she says. “And really, my heaviest burden was lifted the day water started flowing from the new borehole.”

In a small clearing across the dirt road from St. Bonaventure Primary School, a small group of teachers, administrators, priests and students gathered in June 2012 to watch one of the contractors tighten the final bolt on the handle. After a few dozen pumps up and down, the first drop of water splashed on the concrete pad below the nozzle. Everyone cheered and hugged, then jockeyed for position to take a turn filling the new, clean jerricans that Huber purchased for the occasion. They had struck “water gold.”

         Huber is far from done, though. She has three more water projects in Africa that are designed and waiting to be funded.

“It’s what I’m passionate about,” she says. “Living on Lake Erie is a huge gift and being able to share that gift — in some way— eight time zones away is very special.”

Making Waves

         It started with a passion, turned into a project and is culminating with the premiere of the documentary “Making Waves: From Cleveland to Uganda” in Cleveland this month.

The documentary follows Erin Huber on her quest to bring safe drinking water to the Ugandan village of Mulajje. It was made with the help of Lake Erie Living photographer/writer Laura Watilo Blake and Less Productions’ Tom Kondilas, an experienced feature-length filmmaker.

         For 11 weeks over two summers, Huber and her crew lived with the people of Mulajje. The hardest part, says Blake, was seeing the effects of poverty, AIDS, malaria and other diseases on the community. “We may have helped only 600 of the 1.1 billion people without access to water,” she says. “But hopefully the film will be a platform for inspiring others to take up the cause.”

Specifics on the film premiere were not available at the time of publication. Visit drinklocaldrinktap.org for more information.

Photos taken by Blake while making the documentary will be on display until April at the 5th Street Arcades (530 Euclid Ave., Suite 20, Cleveland; 216-583-0500). Proceeds from any purchase will go to support Drink Local Drink Tap’s water projects. To view or purchase the photographs online, visit elbeestudio.smugmug.com