ABOVE: Women carry water for their families as the sun rises behind them at Njenjete village near Madisi, Malawi.

“Water is life,” the women sing.

At 4:30 a.m., it is pitch black in the village of Mzira in Malawi.

In the early morning sky, the Southern Cross and the Big Dipper look bright enough to walk on. Dogs howl and scurrying animals rustle through the maize fields.

Most men and children are asleep but the women are stirring.

African women gather under the shadows of trees, buckets swinging, ready to embark on the first of many journeys they will make during the day to fetch water for their families.

As they gather, they chat, laugh and count heads. Making their way through maize fields, creek and riverbeds, over slick rocks and through other rough terrain, the women sing to encourage each other and to scare away anything or anyone that might be lurking in the dark — including “bad men who may be rapists.”

“Water is life, let us go and draw water, water is life, our children should go to school,” the women sing.

Women sing as they draw water for their families from a muddy, open well in Chimbayo village near Madisi, Malawi. They travel in a group for safety and sing as a way of encouraging one another and to warn possible predators that a group is approaching.
Walking by flashlight before dawn, women balance containers of water while crossing a small creek on their way back to their homes in Njenjete village. A full container can weigh as much as 40 pounds.
Women sing as they make the second trip of the morning at dawn to draw water at Njenjete village. The first trip was completed in darkness.
Women make their way through cornstalks and high grass before sunrise to draw water for their families in Mzira village, near Madisi, Malawi.

The colorful plastic buckets most of them carry hold 5 gallons of water. The weight of water is 8.3 pounds per gallon. Light as air at the beginning of the journey, the filled buckets become heavy burdens balanced on their heads for the trip home. The singing and dancing never stops.

The precious water will be used to make porridge, wash dishes and clothes and bathe children before they go off to school. Not a single drop is wasted. The used dishwater and bathwater is collected; some goes to the chickens and other animals. Some goes to the small kitchen garden.

NOTE: Click on photos to see larger, uncropped versions. LEFT: Some 700 families depend on this shallow, open well for drinking, cooking, bathing and irrigation needs in Mzira village. RIGHT: Violet Chandawira bathes her son, Demphero Muaza, with water from a shallow, muddy well in Mzira village.

The water they scoop up comes from an “unprotected” well, explains Mercy Chikhosi. It looks like a big muddy hole. The women let the water settle in their containers so it looks clear when they dip a cup into it, but it is still dirty, unsafe water.

Chikhosi, a graduate of United Methodist Africa University in Zimbabwe with a degree in nursing, first came to this district in 2011 as a community health coordinator with Malawi United Methodist Church. She now works full time with Wandikweza, an organization she founded to support best practices in health care, developing sustainable communities and empowering girls and women.

Djibi Dre N'Brien Moïse climbs up out of the community well in Niangoussou, Côte d'Ivoire, in 2018 after reattaching the bucket that had fallen off its rope. The well, open at the top, had been replaced with a donor-funded pump and water tower system that provided clean, piped water to several spigots in the village. However, community members could not afford the electricity needed to operate the pump and had returned to using the open well.
Djibi Dre N'Brien Moïse climbs out of the community well in Niangoussou after reattaching the bucket that had fallen off its rope.
Residents of the Goz Amer refugee camp in eastern Chad wash laundry in a muddy pond and spread it to dry on the shore in 2007. The camp, aided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, cared for people fleeing violence in the Darfur region of Sudan. Access to water is an important factor in selecting sites for such camps.

Search for water

Millions of people spend almost every moment of their lives seeking water. Millions more do not give it a second thought.

Which category you are in depends a great deal on where you were born.

According to the World Health Organization, people need 50 liters of water a day to keep health risks low.

More than 800 children under 5 die every day from diarrhea diseases due to poor sanitation, poor hygiene or unsafe drinking water.

Women and children bathe, wash clothes and gather drinking water from a muddy pond, fed by a small stream near Homoine, Mozambique.
Zayou Dahn, 13, carries water for her family in Saturday Dahn Town village near Dorwein, Liberia.
LEFT: Zayou Dahn dips water from an open spring for her family in Saturday Dahn Town village. RIGHT: Zayou Dahn carries water for her family.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief and its parent agency, the Board of Global Ministries, support water and sanitation projects worldwide.

Projects include piping water into homes, providing tube wells, boreholes or rainwater storage systems, digging wells, installing flush toilets and septic tanks, and improving pit latrines and sanitary facilities.

Global Ministries reports that more than 750 million people around the world do not have reliable water access and even fewer have access to water for agriculture and household tasks.

More than 2.4 billion people lack sanitation facilities.

FROM LEFT: The Rev. Naftal Jossefa Nhambire shows one of several shallow holes filled with cloudy water from which his parishioners draw their drinking water in Pale village near Homoine, Mozambique. The Rev. Naftal Jossefa Nhambire drinks from a shallow well in Pale village. Water from shallow holes like this is used for drinking, cooking and bathing in Pale village.
Emelly Maringire, 14, (left) and Malvin Musengwa, 13, walk to fetch water at the end of their school day at Chirichoga High School in Masvingo, Zimbabwe.
Emelly Maringire, 14, fetches water from a spring at the end of her school day at Chirichoga High School in Masvingo. She walked the last few steps to and from the water source in bare feet because the site is considered sacred.

Every dollar spent on water, sanitation and hygiene generates U.S. $4.30 in increased productivity and decreased health care costs.

The United Nations reports a quarter of the major cities in the world face a water crisis.

Many United Methodist conferences, such as the Missouri Conference through the Mozambique Initiative, contribute funds and volunteers to drill water wells.

To learn about ways you can help, go to www.umcmission.org or check with your United Methodist conference or local church.

Ruth Kono carries water for her family from a spring outside the Eye-to-Eye village in Grand Bassa County, Liberia.
Hortência Joaquim (right) balances a full bucket on her head as she and Maria Pedro Matsimbe return from drawing water from the Domo River outside Lameque Mbulo village near Homoine, Mozambique. The full bucket weighs about 40 pounds and the women take turns carrying it. A roundtrip between their village and the river is a little over two miles.
Hortência Joaquim (left) and Maria Pedro Matsimbe draw water for their families at the Domo River outside Lameque Mbulo village. The water source is of poor quality and is shared with animals. Women there often travel in pairs to share the burden of the full bucket on the return trip.
Hortência Joaquim carries her empty bucket on the way to fetch water for her family from the Domo River.
Women carry water from an open well in Mudembelane village near Homoine, Mozambique. From left are: Isaura Jossefa, Elisa Juliaõ and Regina Jalete. They make as many as 10 trips per day to provide for the needs of their families.
Ezequiel Nhantumbo visits with children in Lameque Mbulo village near Homoine, Mozambique, while drillers from the Missouri Conference's Mozambique Initiative drill a new well for the community. Nhantumbo directs the initiative in Mozambique.


Ezequiel “Ezy” Nhantumbo has the most appropriate nickname. Everything about him is easy. His smile, his mad driving skills, his friendly manner — all 100% Ezy.

Sitting in a plastic chair under the shade in the village of Lameque Mbulo, he talked about the early days of the Mozambique Initiative, when some now-retired United Methodist bishops started discussing “what if” the United Methodist churches in Missouri could have personal relationships with the United Methodist churches in Mozambique.

Bishop Ann Brookshire Sherer-Simpson was the bishop of the Missouri area when she traveled to Mozambique and saw the suffering of the pastors who didn’t have food and often had to walk through land mine fields to get to their parsonages.

Bishop João Somane Machado was then the bishop of Mozambique and he often cried because his people had nothing but “dirty, brown water” to drink.

That “what if” became reality in 1988 with the start of the Mozambique Initiative, a partnership between the Missouri and Mozambique conferences.

Felizarda Alexandre draws water from a shallow, open well in the bush outside Homoine, Mozambique. She is a member of Pembe United Methodist Church.
Isaura Jossefa cleans her bucket before drawing water from an open well in the Mudembelane village near Homoine, Mozambique.
A shallow, open well with a rusting oil barrel to help keep the shaft open served the people of Mudembelane village before they received a new, safe well from the Missouri Conference's Mozambique Initiative.

In 2019, 41 wells were completed through the initiative. The average per-person cost for a well in 2019 was $2.04. According to the local communities, these wells brought safe, clean water to 124,140 people.

The Missouri Conference reported that in 2019, a teenager set aside spare money throughout the year and donated $245 in December. Her individual effort provided clean water for 120 people. Donate to this effort here.

Members of Mudembelane United Methodist Church sing and clap as they gather to watch the beginning of drilling operations for a new water well in their village.
Members of the drilling crew and community volunteers position a water pump as they prepare to drill a water well in Mudembelane village.


Isidro Cumaio starts his story by saying, “It is difficult to find a good driller.”

Cumaio, who founded his drilling company in 2014 with the support of his sons, has three good drillers in Adelino Cumbane, José Chambe and José Conjo.

Cumaio is a United Methodist and his faith is at the core of his inspiration and work.

“There are places where women spend the entire day walking to a water source,” he said, sitting in his office.

Sometimes the women construct a small shelter by the water source and spend the night there after walking all day, he explains.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP, LEFT: Driller Adelino Cumbane adds bentonite clay to seal a pit where debris from the well shaft will settle in Lameque Mbulo village near Homoine, Mozambique. Curious villagers gather around Adelino Cumbane (back to camera) and José Chambe as they prepare to start a water pump in Mudembelane village, Mozambique. Drilling water, thick with red soil and bentonite clay, collects in a settling pit in Lameque Mbulo. José Chambe cleans from a submerged filter on the line that circulates water through the drilling rig. Samples of mud and rock line a holding tray during drilling operations. Drillers take a sample of the ejected material each time they add a new section of drill pipe in order to monitor their progress through various strata of dirt and rock. Volunteers hand sections of well casing pipe to driller José Chambe atop the drilling rig in Mudembelane.
Schoolgirls giggle as they watch the start of drilling operations for a new water well in Lameque Mbulo. Women and girls there haul most of the water for their families from distant, low-quality sources.
Residents of Lameque Mbulo watch the beginning of drilling operations for a new water well.

“They get up the next day and walk home to prepare meals and then go to fetch water again,” he said. “Women go fetch water with 20-liter containers. They won’t get home with a full container because they get thirsty, or they spill some of the water on the way back.”

Children and pregnant women have to help retrieve water and do household chores or work in the fields. If children can go to school, they have to bring water to their teachers.

“Do you understand how their lives will change if they get clean, safe water in their villages? They see the drillers coming and they follow, running and celebrating. There is hope.”

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP, LEFT: A member of the drilling crew removes debris that was ejected from the well shaft. A drilling bit stands at the ready to start a new well. Drilling water, thick with soil and the bentonite clay used to help seal the well shaft, collects in a settling pit. Drill rod sections are capped with yellow plastic caps to protect the threads. A member of the drilling crew cleans the filter on a hose used to circulate drilling fluid.
Well-driller João Daji (center) supervises community volunteers as they prepare to assemble the riser pipe for a new water well in Lameque Mbulo.
José Chambe (left) and João Daji blow on an ember from the fire that they are using to soften a rubber air hose, which they will use to blow debris from the well shaft in Mudembelane.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP, LEFT: Members of the drilling crew and community volunteers assemble casing pipe for a water well in Mudembelane. José Conjo, supervisor of a crew from the Isidro Drilling Co., gives a status report on progress toward a new water well in Mudembelane. The crew often worked past dark in order to keep on schedule. Women reach out to touch the spout, resting in the back of the drillers' pickup truck, that will deliver clean water from a new well in Mudembelane. Well driller José Chambe watches from atop the drilling rig while volunteers raise sections of casing pipe for him to insert in the shaft of a new well in Lameque Mbulo.

Cumaio knows from personal experience how hard it is to have to fetch water and carry the heavy containers back home: He was 9 years old when he started having to walk 10 kilometers round trip to get water.

“I had to fetch water before I went to school. I had to get up at 5 a.m.; school started at 6:30. It was a dream of mine to someday find a solution.”

He said when he visits a place with no clean water it brings back memories of his childhood.

Cumaio started working for an Italian drilling company when he was 18. He said he was lucky they came to his community to drill a well. He worked hard and earned a scholarship to go to Italy to learn to become a driller. He has 27 people on his staff and three drilling rigs.

Members of the drilling crew and community volunteers uncoil a rubber air hose that will be used to clean a well shaft being drilled in Mudembelane.
Adelino Cumbane uses a compressed air hose to blow wastewater and drilling debris from a new water well in Mudembelane. The drilling crew often starts and ends their work in the dark in order to maintain a tight schedule.


Driving from the nearest town of Homoine, it takes about two hours to get to Mudembelane once the vehicle turns off the paved road and plunges into the deep, sandy path. Huge cashew trees, monkey fruit trees, scraggly thorny bushes and cacti line the curving drive.

Driving back at night, the landscape looks like a sandy beach in the moonlight. Along the way is the Domo River, the only natural water source in this area.

Phembe United Methodist Church sits back from a freshly cleared lot where the new well will be drilled. The church is a small structure, half-covered by zinc sheets. The congregation raised the money to buy the few sheets by making and selling charcoal.

The few rows of pews are tree limbs supported by hand-cut, large V’s pounded into the ground. Three walls made from branches are woven together with strips of bark. The back opens up to a space where villagers bring in plastic chairs for Sunday service.

The branches of a large cashew tree form the ceiling for an open kitchen. Chickens run around pecking for food just minutes before they become the food themselves. Women are mashing large pots of coconuts into pulp, stirring pots, washing dishes. Elder men sit in a circle in the shade.

Not far from the kitchen is an open well. The women go back and forth fetching water for cooking.

Women and children accustomed to drawing poor-quality water from an open well sing in thanksgiving when the drilling crew for a new well strikes clean water in Mudembelane.
Working by the headlights of a tractor, Adelino Cumbane prepares to pump water from the Domo River in order to drill a new well near Homoine, Mozambique. The drilling process requires thousands of gallons of water to lubricate and cool the bit and to eject dirt and rock dust from the well shaft. In order to keep the process moving, workers often refilled their portable water tank at night.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP, LEFT: Drillers move handfuls of coarse sand into the space between the well shaft and the casing pipe for a new water well in Lameque Mbulo. The sand will provide a layer of filtration for groundwater entering the riser pipe. Coils of rope rest on the ground as preparations are made to cap a new water well in Lameque Mbulo. The rope will be used to lower the riser pipe into the well casing and to raise it again should repairs become necessary. Drillers and community volunteers work together to place a section of casing pipe. Driller José Chambe cleans sections of drill rod as they are removed from the well shaft. LEFT: Sections of pump rod and spacers rest on the ground. RIGHT: Drillers and volunteers assemble sections of riser pipe to be lowered into the casing of a new water well. The rope is used to carefully lower each new section into place and would be used to retrieve the riser pipe if repairs become necessary.

This well is not stable and the water is unsafe. Men have died when the walls collapse while they dig these types of wells.

The Isidro Drilling Company is drilling a new well, financed by the Mozambique Initiative. It is the answer to many nights and days of praying and suffering.

The mood is festive as the drillers arrive and pitch their tents. The drillers will live in the village until they strike water.

“It is a good morning for work to begin,” said the Rev. Pedro Marime. He spoke of John 4:5 and the Samaritan woman at the well.

“We know the water we are drinking now is not safe. Jesus has presented us with this gift: water that will feed all of this community. God loves us so much to come to this place,” he said.

Water gushes from the well casing as drillers force air into the shaft to clean out wastewater and drilling debris before capping a new water well in Mudembelane.
A member of the drilling crew tests the quality of water being flushed from a newly drilled will in Lameque Mbulo.
Isidro Cumaio explains how to care for the new water well he and his drilling crew installed in Mudembelane. Cumaio spoke during the dedication service for the well.

Once work begins, the elders move their chairs to shady spots near the drilling area to watch and wait.

Hercilio Cumaio, 31, the eldest son of Isidro, who owns the drilling company, is here to supervise. Inside the church after the midday meal is served, he talks about his job.

“A well is an overwhelming transformation. There is a lot of need out there,” he said, pointing beyond the door of the church.

Surveys are done before the well site is chosen, but not every site produces water, he said. It takes days of drilling and there are many stumbling blocks to overcome.

“They see us as saviors and it is heavy to tell them we have failed,” Cumaio said. “We try at least three sites, then we have to ask the Mozambique Initiative for another location.”

The water tap and its associated well, tower and pump form a natural gathering place in Nhadumbuque village near Zavala, Mozambique. The well was provided by the Mozambique Initiative of The United Methodist Church's Missouri Conference.
Women in Nhadumbuque village near Zavala, Mozambique celebrate the water well and solar-powered pump and tower that provides clean, safe water from a tap in the center of the village.
A handmade, ceremonial "ribbon" made from strips of tree bark and local flowers guards a new water well prior to dedication ceremonies in Lameque Mbulo.
The Rev. Benjamin Arone Chivale (front) leads other clergy and church members in a procession to the dedication ceremony for a new water well in Lameque Mbulo.

On the third day, this site is successful. The drill reached water at about 40 meters.

Water came to Mudembelane in the dark, cold night of Oct. 1. Small fires were burning all around the drilling site in an effort to keep people warm and fight back the night.

The drillers compress air into the pipes to force the water out. As the water started spraying, the women came singing. Rounding the corner, the firelight caught the joy on their faces. Their singing almost drowns out the shrill grinding of the compressor as the workers flushed the well to get the water clean and ready for use.

Adelino Cumbane, the youngest of the drillers, stood in the wet, muddy field, holding the pipe blowing water out of the hole. He was soaked in a matter of minutes.

By the next day, the drillers were gone to the next site.

Pastor Manuel Machavele leads a procession of church and community members following the dedication of a new water well in Lameque Mbulo.
Church leaders and community members cheer the dedication of a new water well at Lameque Mbulo.
The Rev. Hortencia Bacela prays over a new water well during dedication ceremonies in Mudembelane.

The dedication of the well came a few days later and more than 300 people gathered to celebrate and thank God for the water. The Rev. Hortência Americo Langa Bacela, Mozambique South Conference director of connectional ministries, came to bring greetings from the bishop. Pastors, lay leaders, tribal leaders and the grateful villagers made speeches.

People danced and sang. The elders of the village and children were given sips of the fresh water.

“We will live extra time because of this water,” said one elder. “We will live extra time to praise the Lord.”

Women celebrate after the dedication of a new water well in Lameque Mbulo.


The weight of the water bucket cruelly constricts her neck, shoving her head down into her shoulders. The skin on her dark face shakes with the effort to stand up. Each step she takes pounds her bare feet into the earth, sending up puffs of ghostly dust. The bucket on her head holds 20 liters of water, about 44 pounds. The jug she also carries holds another 20 liters.

Like the other women in her village, she is driven by the constant need for water.

Lameque Mbulo is a small village near Homoine, Mozambique. The walk to the Domo River takes about an hour. They dip their containers into the same water that cattle and other animals drink from, walk through, defecate in. Most children start to help fetch water around 9 years of age. The job usually goes to the girls.

“You can’t get used to this, but we have no other way,” said Hortência Joaquim on the walk to the river.

“We go twice a day. It is tedious, but this is where we are, where we are living and this need for water is why we have to walk,” agreed Maria Pedro Matsimbe.

“I am very excited. I am missing words to express the joy and thanks to have water nearby,” Matsimbe said, watching the drillers prepare their work.

LEFT: Pastor Manuel Machavele leads a hymn following the dedication of a new water well in Lameque Mbulo. RIGHT: The Revs. Hortencia Bacela (right, front) and Pedro Marime (front, wearing clerical collar) join with members of the local United Methodist church and other community members to dedicate a new water well in Mudembelane.
Women and children celebrate the dedication of a new water well in Mudembelane.

A school for first to seventh grades is on a dusty path beaten down between tall weeds by little feet. Sumburane Eugenio Mindo, a teacher at the school, talks about how much time the children miss because they are sick from drinking contaminated water.

Each student is asked to bring 5 liters of water with them; 2 liters of water are kept in the administration building for teachers, he explains. There is a cistern on the school grounds, but it is cracked and hasn’t functioned for a long time.

He imagines fresh, safe water in the village. Children will be able to stay in school. Women will not have to worry about so much sickness and death for their babies from drinking contaminated water.

Children crowd around to sample water from the newly dedicated well in Mudembelane.
Village elders are among the first to sample a cup of water from the new well during dedication ceremonies in Mudembelane.
Water drips from the spout of a new water well, provided by the Missouri Conference's Mozambique Initiative, in Mudembelane. The dedication plaque features the United Methodist cross and flame and this citation from John 4:14, "whoever drinks from the water that I will give will never be thirsty again. The water that I give will become in those who drink it a spring of water that bubbles up into eternal life."

The need for water has been a problem here for generations. Even though the villagers are grateful to have the well drilled here, they worry about all those who will still go without.

When the drill finds the deep vein of water, compressed air forces the water out of the pipes in a translucent burst. Excitement bubbles over for onlookers. Even though the drillers warn not to drink the water yet because it takes time to flush the chemicals out, it is too much for one young mother to resist. The water looks so perfect.

She fills her container and runs back into the huddle of women in the open-air kitchen. Her eyes sparkle as brightly as the water. She takes a cup and offers it to an older woman whose baby is strapped to her back. Before taking a sip herself, the older woman swings the baby around and pours water into her tiny mouth. The baby smiles, then the woman takes a sip and she smiles. Hope shines in their eyes — maybe this child will grow up with safe water. Maybe this child will be able to go to school instead of walking miles to carry water home.

This gift of life-giving water will change many lives.

Joseph Ekow, 5, catches the final trickle of water after filling his bucket at a well behind John Kofi Asmah United Methodist Church in the West Point neighborhood in Monrovia, Liberia. Many families in this dense, urban area lack access to piped water.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Unless otherwise noted, the photography and reporting for this story were completed during trips to Malawi, Liberia and Zimbabwe in 2017, Côte d'Ivoire in 2018 and Mozambique in 2019.

Gilbert is a news writer and DuBose a photographer for UM News, the official news service of The United Methodist Church. Joey Butler, a UM News multimedia editor, contributed to this package. Contact them at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

UM News would like to thank: Mercy Chikhosi of the Wandikweza community health organization; Ezequiel Nhantumbo of the Mozambique Initiative; The Isidro Drilling Company; the Rev. Jean Claude Masuka Maleka, United Methodist missionary; E Julu Swen, a church communicator in Liberia; and Jefferson Knight, The United Methodist Church Human Rights Monitor.


Mike DuBose, United Methodist News