|Share on Facebook|
|Share on Twitter|
By Anna Lothson
The women walk hours a day just for clean water.
Children get sick and miss school because of its scarcity. Girls leave school to help their mothers carry it.
The nearby water source is shared — laundry, bathing, fishing, washing cattle. Runoff alone makes the water unsafe. Death is a regular consequence.
This is Ghana — the world Ray Johnson, Oak Park village trustee, saw when he traveled there at the end of last year as regional coordinator of HSBC, the financial institution he works for. Johnson was asked to go as part of the five-year, $100 million global investment Water Programme launched by the company in 2012.
What he saw changed him.
"You take a step back and say, wow, do we realize how fortunate we are," Johnson said. "Every mother and father we met has seven children. Other children die. It was almost a matter of fact when they expect that. It was their way of life. You know that takes a toll, yet they go on."
He'd been told what to expect and how to handle witnessing a developing country, but when he arrived, it was different.
"They greeted us with music, dance, song and hugs. They were thrilled," he said. "It was profound. I was blown away by the greeting."
Parents and teachers called students out to greet the foreigners; there were noisemakers; there was clapping; there was a formal instruction with the village's chief elder and counsel.
"It was a sight to behold," Johnson said. "They just cheered you. They love you and what you do."
He even picked up a nickname the first day of the trip after they learned he was from Chicago: Obama Boy. The name stuck the entire week.
Johnson worked with WaterAid Ghana, one of HSBC's NGO partners in the Water Programme. The initiative's goal is to bring safe water to 80,000 people and sanitation to 120,000. This is significant for a population where one in five, according to HSBC's research, live without access to an improved water source.
The company's research also shows that Ghana's poor sanitation costs the equivalent of $290 million U.S. dollars in an area where there are 4,000 deaths from contaminated water. Most don't even have access to a clean or safe toilet.
Johnson said working with a global company like HSBC means taking global responsibility. Five districts in Ghana was where they chose to start. Instead of just throwing money into a program and never visiting, Johnson said having a presence on the ground is critical.
"This isn't just about writing a check," Johsnson said. The approach included finding out more about the families, how they made their livelihood and what struggles they have undergone.
"We went there because the need is the greatest."
Through HSBC and WaterAid's partnership with local organizations, they look for practical ways to help communities manage a sustainable water source that improves sanitation and hygiene. Better access to safe water allows more time for the villagers, most significantly the women, to work, earn more money, grow food, cook and care for their children better. Household incomes rise and so does the nutrition of each family.
Johnson got the chance to pump water with families and catch a glimpse of what their lives are like. He thought of what it would mean for families to shorten the distance to clean water through HSBC's program. Assessing the project over a five-year period, he said, will be helpful to see if long-term, sustainable goals are being met.
Studies, he added, have shown that just a $1 investment in a water and sanitation project provides the community with a $5 return.
"That's a tremendous advantage," Johnson said. "Part of the wider HSBC scope is to have a real and lasting impact, meeting the needs of people."
This, of course, all involved the approval of local leaders in Ghana, whom Johnson said were in full support. They understand what an opportunity this is and were able to secure the deal with many friendly handshakes.
But what stuck with Johnson long after he got back were the faces of the young villagers he met, like a 9-year-old boy who made toys using old scraps of wood, or a teacher in his 30s who worried for his health.
"He said to me, 'I know that water is damaging my organs. If I stay here, I will have a very bad life, [but] I'm a good teacher," Johnson recalled. The teacher worried about his students if he left. "I will never forget that person," he added. "Ever."
He was saddened by what he saw but empowered about the possibility of change. He also got a dose of reality coming back to the supermarket seeing people in a rush around the holidays.
"It was striking that people of Ghana were embracing and loving. They embraced their circumstances."
Johnson feels fortunate to be able to make a difference.
"We're improving lives and livelihood. It doesn't get much better than that."