I recently returned back to Kenya after a little break in the States – to see my husband, meet my new nephew and catch up with friends and family. When I returned my Kenyan colleagues asked me to tell stories of my adventures in America: how was my family, Obama, etc. I filled them in, and then asked them to tell me stories of what happened in the community while I was away. They filled me in on the tragedies and celebrations – a man was murdered by thieves, a field officer’s wife delivered a new baby…

Then our field manager, Eliza, said she had a story:

“The well in Gukipimo [the deep well that Nuru drilled a couple years back] broke,” she began. And then she paused. “But we fixed it”, she said with a smile.

Well, that is quite an opening line for a story. “Tell me everything,” I said.

The story that Eliza proceeded to tell is one of the most important moments in our water and sanitation program’s history.

One day the pump in Eliza’s village stopped working, which meant no more water. The villagers were upset because the other water sources are down in the valley; one is known to be contaminated and the other has slowed to a trickle because of the drought. The villagers rumbled amongst themselves that nothing would happen for a month until the “mzungus” (which literally means “white folks”) returned from break.

For a moment, Eliza wondered if she should contact me. She discussed it with the rest of the water and sanitation program management team – Elias, the program lead, and Rosa, our other program manager.

Elias encouraged her: “We know what to do. We have been trained for this. We can do it ourselves.”

The team wasn’t worried because they had been trained by Nuru to know that wells sometimes break – and they must expect this and save money for repairs. For this reason, at each well we’ve drilled, well users pay a small fee per bucket of water collected, and the money is deposited into a savings account. This particular well is located in a village center that bustles with trucks and laborers during the harvest season; over the past couple years, it has collected a significant amount of money. Also, the wells are managed by a well committee. And this particular well committee, under Eliza’s leadership, decided to rent land (using the committee members’ personal savings), plant and harvest potatoes together, and sell the potatoes to raise even more money for their well savings account.

Eliza was prepared for this moment. She had the support of her colleagues and the well committee, and it was time for her to lead. 

She strategically allowed the well to stay broken for one week. She wanted her fellow villagers to remember what it’s like to fetch water from the source and appreciate the deep well. In the past, some people had complained about the fee. She wanted local restaurants to remember that it actually costs much more to hire people to fetch drinking water from the local source for their customers than it does to pay the modest monthly well user fee.

And in the meantime, Eliza started making phone calls. After getting passed around a bit she finally reached a member of the team who drilled the well a couple years back. He remembered her. She told him to come to fix the broken well.

When the man showed up, the community was amazed. They figured nothing would happen until I got back. The villagers had urged Eliza to try to get a hold of me in America to find out what to do. But, Eliza and her team decided that Nuru had turned the wells over to the community to own and manage, and it was their responsibility to solve this problem.

The contractor took a look and verified that the pump rod was broken. He quoted Eliza the price for the rod plus his labor and transport. She told him that the community would be paying the tab because Nuru had turned over the wells to them to own and manage. He was upset. “How could Nuru do this to you?” he asked.

“It’s impossible for the community to own and manage this well!”

Eliza wisely used this to her advantage. “Since the community is paying, you can come down on your price.” And he reduced the price by 10,000 Kenyan shillings (equivalent to about $110 USD) which was 30% of the price! Then, he immediately called his office and basically told them “they’re screwed” because the community is paying for the job. This is where the story gets really good.

Upon Eliza’s insistence, the contractor took the entire well apart to verify that there weren’t any other problems with the well. Then, he installed the new pump rods. The well was back up and running after only a week of being broken. Eliza handed the man a huge wad of cash: the full payment. He was in disbelief. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said.

“The community raised this money?” He couldn’t believe it.

Eliza had informed the well users of the cost of repairs and asked them to pitch in what they could to cover the repairs. She was able to collect 5,000 ksh (equivalent to about $55 USD)! This amount, plus what they had in their account, was more than enough to cover the tab. And, they had savings leftover for the future.

Eliza was proud, and her community saw her in a new light. For the first time, they saw the full potential of her incredible leadership skills – the same skills that Elias, Rosa, I and our field officers get to see, hard at work behind the scenes, every day. The day the well got fixed, an older man who is a respected elder in the community told her this:

“Eliza, I see you go to work for Nuru every day. And, I thought you were someone who knew pretty much nothing at all. But, after seeing that you have fixed the well for us without any assistance from the mzungus, I can see that you are a very big person.”

After hearing Eliza share this story, I had tears in my eyes.

Shy Eliza, a poor widow with a primary school education, stood up for her community and fixed their well.

Eliza and I just sat there beaming at each other for a few minutes. There was more: Eliza continued on about how the contractor and she brainstormed about how they could reduce repair costs in the future if Eliza and her team purchased a set of tools and got trained on how to fix the well themselves. He said he was willing to help her find the tools and train our people for a deeply discounted price.

And then I responded:

“Eliza, thank you for telling me this amazing story. What you and your team members have done together to fix this well – this is sustainability, that word we talk about all the time around Nuru. This is the perfect example of leadership and financial sustainability, our goal at Nuru.”