Women, water and what it means to ‘have it all’

The author and Mari Tuji in Kelecho Gerbi, Ethiopia. Before a water system was built by Seattle Nonprofit Water 1st, Mari walked four hours each day to collect water for her family. (Photo by Marla Smith-Nilson)For millions of women and girls in poor countries, collecting water for their families each day is not just a chore—it’s a symbol of gender oppression.

I wonder what Mari Tuji would say if I asked her what it means to “have it all”?

Mari is a young mother of three, and until last year, like every mother in the community Kelecho Gerbi, Ethiopia, each day she was the first in her household to wake up and get a jump on her main chore—carrying water.

Mari’s community built a new water system in 2012, but before that, when her children were babies, she carried them on her back two hours to the river with the jerry can in her hand. And then after fetching water, she carried the full, 40-pound jerry can on her back and her babies in her arms all the way home.

Mari’s marriage was arranged when she was a child. She tried to get out of it, running away from home as a teenager to work as a maid in the capital of Addis Ababa—the only job she could find as an illiterate young woman. But her family convinced her to return and fulfill the promise they had made to her husband’s family.

When I talked to Mari before her community had started building their new system, she was excited to end her daily walk for water, but also felt that the project “will bring more peace in my home.” She explained that if she didn’t collect water before her husband returned from the fields in the morning, he would become very angry with her, saying, “This is your responsibility! Why didn’t you go earlier in the morning?”

Before a water system was built with the help of Seattle Nonprofit Water 1st, Mari walked four hours each day to collect water for her family from this small river. (Photo by Marla Smith-Nilson)
Before a water system was built with the help of Seattle Nonprofit Water 1st, Mari walked four hours each day to collect water for her family from this small river. (Photo by Marla Smith-Nilson)

She didn’t say it, but I suspect his anger turned violent.

The river where Mari found water for her family was not just a water hole for humans. They shared it with cattle and goats, as there was no other option for local villagers.

When Mari’s children became ill from drinking water, she carried them on foot several miles to the nearest clinic in a town called Busa. Sometimes the medicine to treat her children’s diarrhea was too expensive, or the clinic would run out of it, so Mari would walk back home with her sick child and hope the illness resolved on its own.

As Mari pointed out, they would always get sick again. Nothing had changed.

Mari said she felt she would have “everything” if she had water in her home.

Last week our household’s dinnertime conversation turned into a discussion inspired by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and what “having it all” means to women. My 12-year-old son, a master in recognizing discrimination, quickly chimed in, “what about men having it all?” From there we talked a little about why this question is directed at women in the first place.

It’s not an easy conversation to have with your children. Because I love them. They are without hesitation my favorite thing about my life. But being a working mother and wife isn’t what I imagined it would be for me.

And my husband, Jim, is awesome. He is all the cliches—my best friend and co-parent and involved father. He supports me in everything I do in my career, even becoming a house-husband for a year when I had a job in Egypt.

The Egyptian women I worked with at the time were in shock when I told them Jim packed my lunch every day. My male colleagues told him more than once, “don’t worry, you’ll find work,” but he wasn’t looking.

Nevertheless, something changed in our relationship when we became parents, and I’m still trying to comprehend if I’m okay with that.

Given the job that I have—working with extremely poor families like Mari’s—it sometimes feels wrong to want something more for myself.

But especially on nights when I’m up and down the stairs carrying baskets of clothes, I think, “how did it happen that I do the majority of the laundry in our house?”

It feels so petty to even say it. When I compare my life to Mari’s, I was born having it all.

The author with her grandmother, who she says paved a path of greater gender equality for her. (Photo courtesy Marla Smith-Nilson)
The author with her grandmother, who she says paved a path of greater gender equality for her. (Photo courtesy Marla Smith-Nilson)

My mother and grandmother gifted that to me.

My grandmother was a single mom. Her husband left her for another woman when she was pregnant with my mother. These days, we have a name for that: deadbeat dad.

But that was a different time and place, and so in order to keep her job as an elementary school teacher, my grandmother lied about her absent husband, saying he died in World War II.

My mother didn’t know the truth until she was twelve, when my grandmother remarried. And the only time my grandmother talked about my biological grandfather to us was after she had a little too much wine one night, his name was mentioned and she hissed, “that bastard!”

Based on her childhood experiences and longing for a father, my mother fought for her marriage, staying in a relationship that didn’t always make her happy. She made it clear to me from the time I was a teen that I should expect more from my marriage than she did. And I do.

But my mother was a trailblazer in other parts of her life. I vividly remember the day she and all the other female school-teachers decided to wear banned pant-suits to school instead of skirts.

My mother and my grandmother were stubborn and determined, and they told me I could do and be anything I wanted to be. At one point, when I was about twelve and living in the small rural town of Benson, Arizona, I decided I wanted be an astronaut, and my mother, truly believing I could actually do it, enrolled me in a science day-camp for budding astronauts at the University of Arizona.

The camp was thrilling, and convinced me that I was truly positioned to be the first American female astronaut.

But later that same summer, when we were on a family vacation, camping and water-skiing on a lake in rural Mexico, something I saw changed me. It was a girl, my age, carrying water home to her family.

She clearly didn’t have it all, and it was the first time I had considered how time and place are major determinants of outcomes in life. As I said to my mother then, it just wasn’t fair.

It seemed logical to me then, and now, that extremely poor women could never have the slimmest shot at having it all if their waking hours were consumed in the back-breaking task of carrying water, a job I only see men perform with the help of a donkey.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony for Kelecho Gerbi’s new water system, funded by Seattleites through Water 1st. (Photo by Marla Smith-Nilson)
The ribbon-cutting ceremony for Kelecho Gerbi’s new water system, funded by Seattleites through Water 1st. (Photo by Marla Smith-Nilson)

I attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Kelecho Gerbi’s new water system last year and found out that Mari Tuji had been selected to be on the management committee, responsible for operating and maintaining the piped water network.

She told me that initially she was nervous about taking the position, because she had never been to school. But during the training sessions she realized she was just as capable as her more educated, male counterparts, and that she truly enjoyed learning new things.

With an extra few hours in her day not spent carrying water, Mari now has the time and energy to make new heights of leadership and community participation possible for women in her area. I predict that her daughters and granddaughters will be grateful for her brave actions that will enable them to take a different path, just as I am for my mother’s and grandmother’s perseverance.

Mari Tuji said that she is determined that her daughters will attend school and be literate, now that they have no need to carry water.

She imagines telling her grandchildren about how lucky they are to be born in a time when they have piped water in their homes.

I told her that I’d like to take that dream a little further, and imagine her smile when she sees her grandson doing the laundry for their family. With that statement translated, Mari covered her mouth with her hand and giggled.

Hear more from Marla Smith-Nilson on the Humanosphere Podcast with Tom Paulson

5 Comments

  1. Thank you, Marla. That was a powerful and moving story. I look forward to the Carry 5 event at Seattle Center on May 5 to support Water 1st and support our female friends around the globe.

  2. Marla, I really appreciate your thoughtful take here. I find it very difficult to place gender oppression in a global context and constantly struggle to articulate many of the feelings you’ve expressed here.

    1. Thanks, Sarah. I enjoyed writing it, and also realized how fortunate I am to simply have the time and energy to contemplate these things.

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