"We saw you fly in," the villagers told us, pointing to the sky. We'd arrived in Central African Republic (a.k.a. CAR). Since there's only one flight in and out of the country per week, we knew they meant it. CAR is one of the poorest countries in the world, landlocked in the dead center of Africa.
Traveling 12 hours deep into a lush rainforest on narrow dirt roads, we bumped up and down violently in an SUV to a region that's home to the African elephant, silverback gorilla, black mamba snake and also a forgotten people - the Bayaka Pygmies. The Bayakas are considered outcasts of society because they live in the jungle, often being viewed by others as "animals" of the rainforest.
Pulling up to a village known as "The End of the World" because it's literally where all roads end, we saw mothers feeding their babies next to small domed huts. Children played with wooden toys and practiced throwing spears. The tallest of the Bayaka Pygmies stood only about five feet tall, and almost all had unique facial markings, scars and sharpened teeth, which represent beauty to them.
When we asked them "What is your age?" or "Ngu tti mo ayeke ok," in the local language Sambo, the Pygmies couldn't answer. Most had no idea how old they were. We found quickly that the more appropriate question was "How many children do you have," which they were proud to answer. A typical mother here had about 8 children, and saw 4 of them die prematurely from water-borne disease or malnutrition.
We were greeted with huge excitement, and two of the young girls, Jasmine and Carol, led us on a 15-minute walk down rocky paths to the unprotected, polluted springs where they formerly collected water. We winced as they walked barefoot into the water and took a drink, eagerly showing us what it used to be like here. They both suffered frequent stomach pains from drinking it but had no choice. We also met Bertin and Goze, two 10-year-old boys who barely had any toes left. They suffered from a common disease that affects the majority of Pygmy communities - "jiggers" or parasitic fleas that bury in the skin, lay eggs, and eventually eat away at the skin. They are eliminated simply by washing the feet with clean water. But clean water hadn't ever existed here before.
The girls next led us eagerly to see a charity: water well that was recently completed here at the "The End of the World." We couldn't wait to see the crystal clear water streaming out of the new pump. A few minutes later, we watched as the village kids gathered around and pressed the well's foot-pump up and down, making a game of pumping water. Clean water was now available for the whole village, including the new school where Jasmine and Carol will have the rare opportunity to get an education.
Since gaining its independence from France in the 1960's, four civil wars have ravaged the country, and small groups of rebels still live in "the bush," pillaging villages and harboring war criminals from neighboring countries. Unemployment (at 90%) and disease rates are among the highest in Africa.
Yet amidst the turmoil, clean water now flows to "The End of the World" and other Bayaka and Central African villages due to the generosity of charity: water donors and men like Jim Hocking, who heads up local partner outfit Integrated Community Development International (ICDI) with a passion and love for CAR.
Through 80 Central African staff members, ICDI delivers water, sanitation, microfinance, orphan care, and agricultural services to CAR. For the past two years, charity: water has worked through a partnership with Living Water International and ICDI to fund 178 water projects, bringing clean water to over 200,000 people here. charity: water has been able to give 1 out of every 19 people in Central African Republic access to life's most basic need.
Though Jim Hocking has been evacuated three times, held up by rebels twice, suffered malaria, typhoid, rabies and skin cancer, he is intent on continuing to develop and equip national staff so ICDI can continue to work through periods of social unrest, even if he has to flee the country. When it might be unsafe for us to travel," Jim says, "My team can."
Though this past year has brought various challenges to our own country in the form of mortgage woes, economic instability, and rising employment rates, we learned a lot from this unassuming man with a quick wit, contagious smile and unswerving devotion. We learned to keep going, to keep serving, even when the road is rough. Literally.
One day, it took 18 hours to see two water projects because the "roads" through the jungle were so terrible that they ripped two of our "ultra-durable tires" and overheated our radiator. With each setback, Jim would merely stop the car; lift his thermos, and joke, "All right, I think it's a sign we need another coffee break."
Despite rampant insecurity, we found gradual change happening in CAR. We found people working in harsh, uncertain conditions to improve lives in their communities and country. We found out how our wells made villages healthier, allowed children to go to school for the first time and helped gardens to flourish. We found forgotten yet proud families. We found hope.
For our team at charity: water, helping 1 out of every 19 people feels like a good start in a forgotten country of 3.8 million. But like Jim, we've set our sights on the other 18 and won't stop until everyone here has access to clean and safe drinking water.