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A visit to Kenya prompts a well-drilling nonprofit to spring up

Water Is Life Kenya helps bring clean water to remote, rural communities, reducing disease and helping to lift people out of poverty.

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    Joyce Tannian gathers with locals in Olepolos, Kenya, before her nonprofit Water Is Life begins to drill a well.
    Courtesy of Water Is Life Kenya
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When New York City resident Joyce Tannian witnessed the 9/11 terrorist attacks firsthand, she was overcome with a desire to do something positive, something good.

“When I thought about it all, in the aftermath of the attack, with the smell of burned, melted plastic and building materials hanging over the city on those stunningly beautiful, clear days in September 2001, an image kept coming into my mind of a balance, on one side love and the other hate,” she recalls. “The terrorists had jumped on the hate side, and it was scraping bottom. I wanted to do what I could do, with other caring folks, to jump on the love side of the balance.”

That desire was manifested in her volunteer work with a number of initiatives, including food preparation for World Trade Center rescue workers and time with the nonprofit groups City Harvest and the River Fund New York.

But the deep passion that Ms. Tannian developed for giving back really took root in 2007 when she founded Water Is Life Kenya (WILK), a nonprofit organization based in Newark, Del., that brings clean water to remote, rural communities in Kenya as a way to reduce disease and poverty.

A large part of her motivation came from observations she had made while visiting Kenya.

“I witnessed the livestock losses, hunger, lack of water, and desperate money situation which caused families to take their children out of school and start to move to other areas,” she says. “Lack of clean water was a huge contributor to all these problems, including girls not attending school since they are needed at home to relieve the heavy load on their mothers and attend the small children in the family.”

Her understanding of the challenges facing those living in Kenya grew while she was visiting a friend in Kenya in 2003, a trip that spurred her to sponsor a young Kenyan girl’s education. She returned three years later to continue her charity and volunteer work, during which she observed a significant drought.

“Drought in Kenya in 2006 brought to my attention the ongoing hardships people living in the arid and semi-arid areas of Kenya face,” she says. “I thought often about how lucky I was growing up in a place where I never doubted I would finish school, I never questioned whether there would be [water] taps in our house, let alone [an] unending water supply.”

Tannian became determined to raise money to dig a well – so she founded WILK and became its director.

The organization has already made a significant impact.

“WILK has successfully helped a dozen communities solve their water problem,” she says. “Thousands of women, men, children, and the[ir] family livestock have benefited.”

Each WILK project requires that members of the local community contribute something. Community water committees are formed and receive training to manage water supplies and wells. Well operation fees are collected based upon the number of livestock that a family owns.

“We developed a program together with the Ministry of Livestock extension officers in our area called ‘Livestock as a Business,’ ” Tannian says. “We train livestock farmers in drought-cycle management and in more profitable ways of keeping their livestock.”

Another aspect of WILK’s work relates to beaded handicrafts, which are handmade by Kenyans using glass and paper beads. WILK pays the artisans and then sells the products in the United States, using the profits to fund future projects.

“Beaders and their families have benefited hugely by doing what they enjoy for a fair wage and being able to have money for the things their families need like food, rent, school fees, family emergencies, [and] starting capital for small businesses like vegetable stands, goats trading, photography, [and] digging a well to do irrigation farming,” she says.

Tannian says she would like to see WILK spread to a wider geographic area with the cooperation of partners.

“We are motivated to continue because we see how helpful it is,” she says. “It is exciting to see people more able to reach their potential. We hear from people how much they have benefited, how their lives have improved through clean water.”

• For more information about Water Is Life Kenya visit www.waterislifekenya.com.

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