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Regional Archives The Altamont Enterprise, November 19, 2009

Malawian man of passion seeks clean water for his people,
Farnsworth Middle School students respond with compassion

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Clean water is a matter of life and death.

Students at Farnsworth Middle School know the statistics behind that statement: They know that 4,000 children die every day because they don’t get fresh water.

But it is more than a number to these kids.

It’s personified in a humble hero, Charles Banda, an African who visited their school from Malawi on Monday.

Banda, who was born in 1956, worked as a firefighter for 20 years, and also as a taxi driver and a preacher.

“I was a preacher,” he told The Enterprise. But it was hard for people to gather to hear him preach. “Most of the meetings were canceled because of the cholera,” he said.

Banda decided to serve his people physically, not just spiritually.

He started drilling shallow wells in rural villages and gained support. Banda formed the Freshwater Project for Malawi, which has installed more than 2,000 wells since 1995 and was recognized by UNICEF last year as an exemplary non-governmental organization.

“We want to reach each and every village with a protected water source,” he said of his goals for the future. “We must teach good hygiene habits.”

Banda’s optimism and resilience stand in stark contrast to his upbringing. He was an orphan at 7; after both of his parents died, he moved from one relative to another. He walked miles to school, barefoot. He knew many people who died of water-borne diseases.

“I’m doing this,” he said of his current work, which he tackles with a preacher’s zeal, “because of the people dying from cholera, dying from typhoid, dying from malaria.”

What brought Banda to Farnsworth — he doesn’t often leave Malawi — was the passion of two women. The first is Amy Hart, an American who wanted to make a difference so launched a career as a filmmaker, creating a documentary, Water First, about Banda and his project.

Farnsworth science teacher Jean Quattrocchi saw the film over a year ago. “It moved her spirit,” said Banda. “She shared that with her students.”

Her middle-school students rallied and raised $6,000. At an assembly on Monday two commercials created by students were screened, describing Banda’s project and soliciting funds through collection jars and a school-wide festival, Farnival.

Quattrochi told The Enterprise that she has long had an interest in Africa, and went to Kenya with a group of teachers in 2001, where she visited two schools. “We helped make bricks for a new room for a school,” she said.

Quattrochi hopes to do more volunteer work in Africa after she retires in two years. When she saw Hart’s film, she said to herself, “This is it…This is what I want to try…The kids jumped right on it.”

They brainstormed to come up with ideas on fund-raisers, and parents and local businesses got involved. The kids hosted bake sales, drawings, a garage sale, movie nights, and the festival.

The $6,000 they raised bought a pump and two latrines in the village of Chigombe, supplying water for the 414 students at the Kesinala village school.

“The kids make it new every day,” Quattrocchi said of her 26 years of teaching.

She left the plans for Monday’s assembly primarily in their hands. The seventh-graders made a big cardboard check, a surprise of $1,241 they had recently raised to put towards repairing equipment.

They also answered one of the items on Banda’s wish list — books for children. The Farnsworth students arranged to have a thousand books wheeled in on a cart, so they could dramatically unveil the cartons as they presented them to Banda. They also promised to pay for shipping the books to Africa. The six kids proclaimed as one, “We hope the children enjoy the books. We’re glad you came to visit.”

“It’s not a professional production,” said Quattrocchi.

“For people we don’t know”

Indeed, the sentiments were heartfelt as at least three adults — Banda, Hart, and Quattrocchi — confessed to being near tears.

The school’s principal, Mary Summermatter, opened the assembly by saying it was to “celebrate the power of what people can do when they come together to make something happen…for people we don’t know that live almost a half-world away.”

House Principal Michael Pipa said that Banda is “living proof that one person connecting with others can change the world.”

Hart, in turn, said that the Farnsworth students had made a difference and she would post their videos on her website.

Banda made his entrance carrying a large jug of dirty water on his head as Quattrocchi explained that that is what people in much of the world have to drink.

Surveying the crowd of Farnsworth students, Banda told them that young girls like themselves had to carry water many times a day, hefting the heavy containers to their heads and walking long distances.

He also said that 63 percent of primary schools have latrines, and the latrine-to-student ratio is 1 to 140. Without latrines, Malawians often defecate in the bush, he said, which further pollutes the water.

Banda’s Freshwater Project integrates the water supply with teaching good hygiene and also involves the community at a grassroots level.

In the villages where the project has installed wells, the rate of water-borne diseases has decreased from 70 percent to just 2 percent, Banda said. And the school dropout rate for girls has gone from 40 percent to 6 percent.

“Young girls tend to be shy,” Banda explained, “and can’t urinate or defecate in public.” A father of six and grandfather of two himself, Banda said that girls will often drop out of school rather than suffer the humiliation.

Additionally, girls, like their mothers, are expected to carry water long distances several times a day. Girls typically wake at 4 a.m. to carry water for morning chores, Banda said. Then, at school, they have to fetch water again for class. And, in the afternoon at home and again in the evening, they fetch more water. This interferes with girls’ going to class and studying.

“Why is it that girls have to carry the water?” asked a Farnsworth girl.

“There is gender imbalance in Africa,” said Banda. “Bringing water — a woman; getting firewood — a woman; cooking — a woman,” he said.

“Since the women do, like, everything, what do the men do?” asked another girl.

They listen to the radio and play games, answered Banda as the crowd was in an uproar.

Quattrocchi, who worked the bleachers, gathering questions from students, added, “Their job is to get a job but unemployment is so high.”

Hart interjected, “You young men, don’t try to be Malawian in that respect.”

Another student asked at what age girls started carrying water, and Banda said that, as soon as they start walking, they carry small amounts on their heads and then, as they grow, the size increases to as much as 40 pounds or more.

Banda answered a wide variety of thoughtful questions from the Farnsworth students. He said that 400 students and 2,000 people would be using water from the well that the Farnsworth students had paid for. The drilling took two weeks, he said, since the work had to be subcontracted. (The Freshwater Projects’ drilling rig is broken.)

He also explained how he set up committees in each village where a well is drilled so that it is maintained. Since water is women’s work, 60 percent of the committee members are women, he said. “Men want clean water,” he said. “They don’t want their wives lugging it a long way.”

Quattrocchi reiterated a story from Banda. “Politicians promised clean water and didn’t follow through on their promises,” she said. “A politician got angry that Mr. Banda was becoming so popular and hired someone to kill Mr. Banda. The person that was hired was from a village where Mr. Banda had provided clean water and wouldn’t kill him.”

Later, Banda told the children, he was offered a political position but turned it down because he wanted to serve Malawi by giving its people clean water.

“Believe in your dreams”

After answering the students’ questions, Banda was presented with a series of gifts, including a red Farnsworth T-shirt. The students presenting it said he was an inspiration and made them feel they had made a difference.

Banda smiled as he held up the shirt and said he liked red.

Next, he was presented with the surprise check for $1,241 to pay for repairs, and then with the cartload of books.

“I don’t know what to say. You people are wonderful,” said Banda. “You can make me cry. I didn’t think people out here are thinking about our children in Malawi. I must salute you.”

“What a moment of greatness here at Farnsworth today,” said Superintendent John McGuire. He said that Banda is “inspiring to all of us” because of how he has dedicated his life to others.

“You are changing lives with everything you do,” McGuire told Banda, adding how proud he was of Farnsworth students.

In her closing remarks, Quattrocchi repeated what she had said to her students when they raised $6,000: Have you ever saved a life before? Well, you have now.

“You students teach us so much every day…about selflessness, about thinking outside the box….” she said.

She also told the students, “You’re never too small or too young” to make a difference. Quattrocchi concluded, “If you ever think you’re too small to be effective, you’ve never been in bed with a mosquito zooming around your head.”

Hart echoed those sentiments as she talked about the value of persistence in making a difference.

“Making this film wasn’t easy,” she told the students, detailing the difficulties in getting finances. “It took years. It took persistence.”

She felt like dropping the project when she learned that movie star Leonardo DiCaprio was making a film about water. Encouraged by her son, she continued her quest.

“Believe in your dreams,” Hart concluded. “Follow them and don’t quit.”

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