by Ron Reed
When Besta Mlowe was born 18 years ago in the town of Ifunda in Tanzania, it seemed this would be her future: she would marry young, have many children, be dominated by her husband and live in a mud hut.
Mlowe was the second born in a family of four children. When she was 2, her father abandoned the family. When she was 14, her mother died. She and her siblings had been working in the fields to get money for food, and Besta had been to primary school and had learned to read in Swahili.
After her mother’s death, the four Mlowe children went to live with their grandparents in a village in the Kilolo District of Iringa. Now, her grandfather is 85 and unable to work. The children cultivate maize and beans, living in a small hut with a dirt floor.
But Mlowe has also accomplished the unexpected. She is a water well driller earning 80,000 Tanzanian shillings (tsh) — about $75 — a month. As a female well driller, she is a trailblazer in a country where gender roles are well defined and rarely challenged.
I met Besta in 2008, when I was looking for young people to join what would be the second crew of well drillers I would organize, train and employ. My goal was to help villages in the Kilolo District access clean water, but as it has turned out, well drilling would also offer young women like Besta a chance at a more prosperous way of life.
In Tanzania, one in four children die before age 5. Girls marry at about age 15 and typically have seven children. A significant number of women each year commit suicide to escape hardship, hopelessness and despair.
About three years ago, Besta’s fate began to change when she heard about a vocational school in Kilolo. The school fees of 30,000 tsh (about $25) could be paid over time and sometimes even waived. The school offered three classes, carpentry and masonry for boys only and a tailoring class for girls. Besta joined a class of 40 girls and proved to be a good student, learning sewing quickly. She was a hard worker and found she could earn a few shillings by sewing for people in the village.
But when I met Besta in 2008, she still did not own a book, had never seen a movie, and had never been to a doctor or dentist. She would arise early, have some tea and porridge, and then walk 4 kilometers to the school. In the evening, she ate beans and a ground corn called ‘ugali.’
In 2004, I began traveling to Tanzania. I saw that people were drinking contaminated water from swamps and mud holes, that women and children were carrying 5-gallon buckets, often on their heads, 3 or 4 miles a day. I became interested in drilling wells in the Kilolo District villages. Though I run a law practice in Chico, Calif., where I work as a public defender, I decided to learn the fundamentals of well drilling. I spent time with well drillers, reading books on well drilling and taking some training classes. I traveled to other states to learn how to use lightweight well-drilling rigs that could be shipped to Tanzania.
In 2007 with the help of my sons and friends, I built three well drilling machines in my shop in Chico and loaded them into a cargo container destined for Tanzania.
‘Not work for girls’
On a trip to Tanzania in June of that year, I hired a Tanzanian, Castor Sanguya, to be my manager, and in November, they began training the first 10 young people to be well drillers. The trainees were selected from a group of former street children who had been taken in by an Iringa orphanage and were now too old to stay in the orphanage. Some of those selected were from the vocational school in Kilolo. I told those selecting the trainees that I wanted some girls in the group. The response to this was negative. Even the administrator of the vocational school discouraged us.
This was not work for girls, we were told, and it would not be well received. But Castor and I agreed that this should be done despite the risk. Eight young men and two young women were selected. I arranged for the 10 to work with an Iringa well drilling crew as helpers and trainees, and agreed to pay each 30,000 tsh a month so they would work for the Iringa crew without cost. The team worked hard and soon it was doing most of the work drilling wells. Castor bought them work boots, overalls and hard hats, and made sure that they were fed regularly and always had a safe place to sleep. They began to call themselves, “The Kilolo Star Well Drillers.”
In June 2008, the cargo container with the three drill rigs arrived at Kilolo and along with my son, Ben, and granddaughter, Kelsey, we set up the rigs and trained the young trainees to operate them. The rigs were named after African animals: Twiga (giraffe), Simba (lion) and Tembo (elephant). Ten more trainees, including Besta and two other young women, were added.
The first group of trainees was now paid 50,000 tsh and the new workers 30,000 tsh. In July 2008, the first well was drilled by the Trombo team, and by June 2009, the Kilolo Star Well Drillers had drilled more than 50 wells, setting hand pumps and providing clean water to 12 different villages. A water engineer was retained to teach water well drilling theory and practice in short sessions. An experienced well driller was hired as trainer. A truck was rebuilt and a driver hired to transport the drillers and rigs. Castor established his qualification with the Tanzanian government and was licensed as a well driller.
In February 2009, the Kilolo vocational school was in crisis. It was no longer able to sustain itself, and its teachers had not been paid for five months. I arranged to take over the finances and management of the school. The school, located on 3 hectares provided by the district government, had at the time only one partially completed classroom building. The school was named “The Kilolo Star Vocational School,” Castor was appointed director, and I, board chairman. I agreed to fund the school and pay the teachers.
By September 2009, a second classroom building had been built, electricity was installed, and a computer room finished. A teacher of English was hired. In February, 60 computers were shipped from Chico to Kilolo Star Vocational School after local high school students raised the money to buy them from Chico’s Computers for Classrooms. All Kilolo Star Vocational School students, including the well drillers, will be taught English and computer skills.
Last fall, a second cargo container with a fourth drill rig arrived and was unloaded. I met with all the well drillers and teachers and told them I wanted to have a drilling team of all women. I needed to know that this would be acceptable to everyone. The response was unanimous. The men well drillers said: “This is good. The girls have proved to be good workers.”
Six Days of Drilling
Aita Kipingi was selected crew chief and Besta and three others comprised the new crew. When I asked the women to name the rig, they chose, “The Lioness,” but when they painted the name on the rig it was in Swahili and said, “Mama Simba.”
Early on, the drillers and villagers had started calling me “Baba Maji,” which in Swahili is “Father Water,” and after getting their own drilling rig, the young women in a letter to me wrote:
“We thank you a lot Baba Maji for enabling this project which you gave us for drilling wells. It has helped us a lot in our lives and has helped in solving many problems. We love this job and will try our best to get knowledge in this project. May God bless and increase whatever you lack, but lastly we love you, Baba Maji. It’s Your Children.”
In September, the Simba crew failed to get a well at a clinic in Ihimbo. The need for a well was great as the clinic had only the water from a polluted drainage 2 kilometers away. It had been their sixth try. The area had rock at 20 feet, and even with my bringing a special rock bit and a reinforced drill collar, they got stuck at 40 feet and lost the bit and 30 feet of drill pipe. I returned in November with some additional supplies for the hard rock, and this time I asked the Lioness team to drill. After setting up, the team quickly drilled the 20 feet and then started the slow process of drilling through rock.
Drilling at a rate of 8 inches an hour, the task required careful and full concentration. Too much downward pressure and you will snap the drill pipe; too little and you will not penetrate the rock. The crew drilled steadily for six days an inch at a time until they were into water at 63 feet. The village and the staff of the clinic rejoiced.
Lisa Walker, an American volunteer working with a secondary school at Kwala, had contacted Castor and asked for help; the school’s need for good water was great. Kwala is 70 kilometers from Dar es Salaam and 430 kilometers from Kilolo, and I said this was too far and they should only drill in Kilolo. But Castor said it would be an adventure for the drillers. So in December, Castor took the young women and some of the men well drillers to Kwala. They drilled 140 feet and got good water. Then Castor took them to Dar es Salaam and they spent a day at the beach on the Indian Ocean. For many, it was the first time they had seen the ocean.
Besta told an interviewer, “Well drilling is what makes me happy, and I wish more women could join me and not be scared because they can make it.”
Roni Kingunqa, another female driller, said, “Becoming a great driller and a teacher to others on drilling is my ambition, and I am very happy with my work.”
Aita, the crew chief, said that she encourages all women to work hard and not to just stay home and keep depending on the men. “Women can work anywhere as long as she has determination.”
Another driller, Jestina, said she would love to be a teacher and teach women “on how to drill wells.”
Keep it Turning to the Right
I’m now 75 and still practicing law. I love my job but when I wake in the morning, my first thoughts are about well drilling. I travel to Kilolo four or five times a year. I conclude each trip with a party for the well drillers with food and soft drinks. Everyone gives a speech and I always give the same one. It goes like this:
“Twelve million of your brothers and sisters in Tanzania do not have clean water. There is no greater thing you can do with your life than be a well driller. Because of what you do, babies will not die and old men and women will live longer, people in villages will not have to walk five kilometers for water. When people ask, ‘What do you do?’, always answer with pride, ‘I am a well driller.’ No occupation is more honorable. Well drillers do not say, ‘goodbye’ they say, ‘keep it turning to the right, because it is only when your drill bit is turning to the right that you are digging a borehole. I am proud of all of you and thank you for your hard work. Endelea kwenda kulia wakati (‘Keep it turning to the right’).”
All of the well drillers now receive 80,000 tsh ($80) a month and five new trainees have been added. The Kilolo Star Well Drillers have completed 64 wells and expect to drill 50 wells a year for the next four years. Our goal is to teach people to build the rigs themselves and go to other villages and drill wells. The villages will be responsible for paying for the service.
This project exemplifies my belief that a problem can often be solved by working together and providing help, that it’s not just a matter of throwing money at it. There is need for thousands of wells in Tanzania and millions in Africa. It is my hope that villages, NGOs, government entities and missionaries will use the rigs and hire our well drillers — including the women.
On April 14, Chico attorney Ron Reed, just back from his most recent trip to Tanzania, reported that a total of 71 wells have been drilled. Read a 2008 story written about his work by British journalist Laura Male and reprinted by ChicoSol. He leaves again for Tanzania in early May.