Clean Water, Clean Blood
This article is one component of the cover package on "Songs of Justice, Missions of Mercy."
The Chalbi Desert of northern Kenya is so desolate, locals call it "the edge of the world." It's sparsely populated by the Turkana, tribal herders who maintain a traditional way of life. Drought is common.
A dot along the unforgiving landscape is Torbi, a village so small it does not appear on most maps. But a Christian rock group from America partnered with an international agency to provide funds to bring life-giving water to Torbi's inhabitants.
Torbi's rainwater catchment system—a means of collecting fresh water in the desert—is just one of over 600 water-providing projects that the Grammy Award-winning band Jars of Clay has brought to African communities through Blood: Water Mission, the charitable organization it founded in 2003. The band is almost two-thirds of the way toward its goal of bringing clean water to 1,000 communities.
During a 2001 visit to Malawi, lead vocalist Dan Haseltine saw villagers drinking dirty water from mud pools, and met many more suffering with HIV/AIDS. When he returned to the U.S., the idea for Blood: Water was born. Its name derives from what Haseltine said are Africa's two greatest needs: clean blood and clean water. Waterborne diseases such as cholera and dysentery take tens of thousands of African lives each year and kill more people worldwide than anything else, including HIV/AIDS. People living with HIV/AIDS are particularly vulnerable to such diseases.
Haseltine has traveled to Africa five times since, including a recent trip with the band to visit some of the group's projects in Kenya. Just before the band embarked on the grueling 100-mile trek to Torbi from the town of Marsabit, both an American pastor and the band's Kenyan driver independently told Haseltine, "There is always life in the desert."
"I felt like God was daring me to find him in this place," Haseltine said. "So I kept my eyes open."
In 2005, about 70 villagers, including 22 children, were killed when Torbi was attacked by raiders from a rival tribe. Haseltine met children who still carried scars, but they had written on their schoolhouse walls, "We endure the pain to embrace the gain."
"Instead of the school shutting down, it became stronger and more significant to the community," said Haseltine. "God was at work in the desert. The things that really matter survive."
The rainwater catchment system that Blood: Water helped to build was providing plentiful, clean water to the school and the community. "There was a tangible, life-saving effect," said Haseltine. "It's always amazing to see and hear stories of people who would not be alive if it weren't for access to clean water."
Blood: Water's work focuses on drinking water and sanitation projects, but it also partners with other agencies to build clinics and provide HIV/AIDS testing and education. Last year, the mission had more than $7 million in revenue and $5.8 million in spending. (Audited financial statements are available on its website.) It regularly partners with local organizations like Lifewater International, which trains people how to dig wells and build systems to catch rainwater. "Those partnerships empower local community groups," said Blood: Water director Jena Lee Nardella.
Blood: Water has one African on its nine-person staff in Nashville, and two Africans on its eleven-member board of directors. Board member Steven Garber, of the Washington Institute, said they are always asking how they can run the ministry with sustainability in mind. "Africans are thoughtful, committed, articulate, intelligent people, and our desire is to work with them," he said, "not to come in and do the work ourselves."