Ethiopia and its life-giving water wells

Fr Filippo Perin, 52, is a missionary in Ethiopia’s Gambella region on the border with South Sudan. A beautiful land where, however, there is no water; the people are starving and the climate is unbearable. His project, supported by the Salesians and the non-profit organization Cuore Amico, opens as many wells as possible to ensure the population’s survival in a country where the average life expectancy is below 50 years of age.

By Cecilia Seppia

In some parts of the world, marked by long periods of drought and famine, people are prepared to die for a jug of drinking water or for access to a stream. Brother against brother: it is a war often fought with bare hands, a war of hunger and thirst. This is what is happening in Ethiopia, in the Gambella, one of the African nation’s most remote and poorest regions, where the missionary, Fr Filippo Perin, parish priest of Lare, has been living and working since 2008, together with the large Salesian family, which arrived here after the Jubilee of 2000. 

Gambella brings together many different ethnic groups and has also been home to numerous South Sudanese refugees living in eight refugee camps for some ten years. “Only 14 per cent of the population has access to drinking water,” Fr Filippo tells us, “so it is not uncommon for bloody clashes to break out between villages over water. That is why one of the first things we felt was most urgent was to raise funds to dig wells. The costs, however, are high. Just to bring the excavating machine to this impervious and isolated area requires three thousand euros, and the cost for the digging work is also expensive, but it saves people's lives.”

With the support of the Church, the Cuore Amico Fraternità foundation, and many private individuals, 100 wells have been built in Gambella today, and we intend to keep on doing this to allow more and more people to live, because without water, there can be no life.

Fr. Filippo Perin, parish priest of Lare with the children and youth of the village
Fr. Filippo Perin, parish priest of Lare with the children and youth of the village

Africa’s (disenchanted) dream

"When I was ordained a priest, I immediately felt the urge to go on mission. For a while, I worked in a school in Mogliano Veneto, near Treviso in northern Italy, and with the young people we went on trips and summer camps in poor countries. I felt that my place was there; I left my heart and thoughts in those places, so after negotiating a bit with my superiors, I got permission to leave for Africa. Africa at first sight was exactly as I had always imagined it. The forests, the savannah, the beautiful animals, the lions, the gazelles, the giraffes, the crocodiles, and these villages of huts, with their dusty roads, the torrid, asphyxiating heat and the smiles of the children who have nothing but are excited about everything, it seemed like a dream..."

"Then living here, I touched with my own hands the suffering, the critically challenging aspects of this beautiful land. Just think, life expectancy here is below 50 years. There is a lack of food; people have only one meal a day. There are no hospitals, and the local clinics only distribute two medicines: paracetamol and amoxicillin, a broad-spectrum antibiotic for various types of infections. Nothing else. Young people and children fall ill and die from diseases that are curable in other parts of the world. There are no schools; education is not even a priority for governments, so it is often entrusted to the Church or NGOs that perform this important task as best they can. The children don't have books or notebooks to write in but they have a great desire to learn. Not to mention the climatic situation: from December to June the temperatures are over 40-45 degrees and there is no rain, so agriculture suffers a lot."

The village exploding in celebration

In 16 years, Fr Filippo has opened new parishes; Gambella is now a diocese, he explains, and above all, he has managed to raise money to dig 30 wells. "A few years ago,” he continues, “we managed to find a company that provides the equipment to dig. The excavator comes during the dry months when it doesn't rain, when it can reach the villages comfortably. Otherwise, during the rainy season everything is flooded, the roads are not passable. The technicians do an inspection, they locate the water table and see how deep the water is; they sink down a pipe and if it is a good spot, they proceed by building the cement base with a pump to bring the water to the surface.

When the first water comes out, the whole village erupts in celebration. Women arrive to fill their jerrycans; some drink, some shower, some play with the water like crazy, some dance with joy! They all stand around the well for hours and realize what a great gift they have received!" Unfortunately, however, supplies are limited; there is always the risk that the water will run out, and then, explains Fr Filippo, "it is important to ensure that the well is well maintained. The inhabitants are instructed on the correct use of the crank handle but it often breaks and then we have to call the company again to try to repair it but this involves other expenses, more money".

Women in Ethiopia are often in charge of collecting water in containers that they then carry for kilometres
Women in Ethiopia are often in charge of collecting water in containers that they then carry for kilometres

Evanglizing through concrete works

Agriculture is the main source of livelihood for people in the village of Lare, as in other areas of Ethiopia. Mostly, maize is cultivated and from the cobs, flour is made to make polenta or corn meal, which is the main staple food; another economic activity is livestock breeding, especially cows and sheep for milk and meat, but without water it is difficult to keep the herds alive. Finally, there are small commercial activities with local handicrafts and clothes sewn by local women, but they certainly do not guarantee a great source of income. Moreover, one can understand why education is not encouraged in this context of extreme poverty: young people often help their families in cultivation; they have to work for a living and cannot afford to study.

"In this land," Fr Filippo continues, "we are constantly aware of the Pope's call to care for our common home and its inhabitants. As Salesians, our mission cannot and must not be just to bring people to church. Of course, evangelizing is fundamental, breaking Bread together with the whole village. But here we evangelize through works and Jesus tells us to give drink to the thirsty and food to the hungry.  Before going to catechism, people ask me to open a well, because water increases the prospect of life. That is why we do everything, even with the well project, to ensure a minimum of well-being.

Survival! This is the key word in Lare and throughout Ethiopia; we cannot turn our faces away and become indifferent! And if we cannot give life, we can at least ensure survival by doing everything in our power: first, clean drinking water or for washing hands, then also working for peace and respect for this great biodiversity.

Every time water gushes out from a well, the whole village breaks out in celebration
Every time water gushes out from a well, the whole village breaks out in celebration

Living, not just surviving

Fr Filippo Perin ends his interview with a painful story: "In February, which was one of the hottest months I have ever experienced since I’ve been here, we spent days counting the dead and there are no newspaper reports on this. People of various ethnic groups clash and kill each other for control of the water, of the wells. So Laudato si' and even more so Laudate Deum, exhort us to work for concord and fraternity in this remote place, where everything is lacking but there is also a deep desire to change things and to be able to live, not just survive.”

There are no schools in this region of Ethiopia, but the Salesians try to provide a basic education with the means at their disposal
There are no schools in this region of Ethiopia, but the Salesians try to provide a basic education with the means at their disposal

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30 April 2024, 12:32