A shocking lesson

I knew almost immediately what they needed. It was obvious, and would be so impactful. For decades people would talk about the partnerships started (humbly by me) to get running water to the villages. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer and I had a solution.

I had been in my village of Martuni, Armenia, for two weeks. Living with a host family, a four generation household of between 7 and 12 people (it fluctuated depending on who was in town), I knew only them and my tutor, a feisty single woman, and another Peace Corps Volunteer in a village 45 minutes away. I was 23 years old. We did not have running water.

My market research consisted of 1) my cold and infrequent bucket baths, 2) the need to drop everything and collect water when you heard it get “turned on” by the municipality, and 3) my bitching with other Peace Corps Volunteers about our bucket baths. 

A bucket bath

With the following tools one takes a bucket bath: A bucket (about the size you’d use to mop the floor), a small handled cup (a measuring cup or coffee cup). If you are fancy, you’d use a dangerous and highly effective homemade immersion heating device. 

It is basically a block of wood, wrapped in a metal coil that is connected to a plug. You drop that block in the water, plug it in, and DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE put your hand in the water because a live electrical current is heating the water. These are not safe but again, highly effective. Nearly every Peace Corps Volunteer I know has not heeded the advice given at the hardware store and put their hand in and received a terrible shock. I did it about four times over my service. 

In the winter a bucket bath is uncomfortable and fast. Long hair gets washed infrequently. Over time I started to understand why body odor was not such a big deal: the means to mitigate it were simply not worth it. 

The rumble of water

In the afternoon one summer day I was at the local school helping a teacher when we heard a low rumble. A groaning from the ground, I thought it was a storm or an earthquake. My colleague stopped the lesson and said we had a one hour break for water. The city had “turned on” the water, and what we heard was it making its way through the broken and dilapidated pipes to community faucets and homes with plumbing. Every woman in town stopped what she was doing to gather buckets and stand in line at the spigots. 

The buckets were hand held, and each household would make multiple trips depending on their water storage situation at home. My family had five large plastic garbage bins with lids and we would make multiple trips to top off every one and fill the tub. Then we would use the tub water first and then turn to the bins. 

There was no notice given, no understanding of how often water would come. You prepared for a city-inflicted drought every time. It might come back on in two days, it might be 22. That was the longest I went without experiencing running water. My host grandmother, after we received water for the first time in 22 days, responded to the offer of a bucket bath with, Why hurry? 

The echo chamber of American expectations

It did not last long, but there was a period of months early in service where day-to-day activities like collecting water and going to use the outhouse took up so much of our conversations. It was novel, and it was deeply personal, so we talked and talked and talked about it. During this echo chamber was when I thought that running water was the thing to solve because all I was doing was discussing it with similar perspectives and reinforcing the brilliant idea. I was not alone in this idea; several other Volunteers thought this would be their project too. 

But then we settled into it, we chilled out about these daily activities, we learned enough Armenian to discuss bigger ideas, we paid more attention to the lives around us instead of our own. We left the echo chamber and listened to the wider community. 

The real needs

In the Peace Corps they tell you to spend the first six months and “do nothing.” Don’t start a project, don’t exert your expertise, don’t change the community. Just listen and wait. Turns out that doing nothing and listening takes a lot of doing. I spent two hours every day drinking coffee with the teachers at my school, I’d spend another hour for tea, and another hour for lunch. Then tea again, and then the dinner I’d have on the way home from school and then the dinner at home. Then tea and fresh bread before bed. 

Sixteen pounds and five months later I learned that the water issue was important, but not as urgent as other needs. More urgent needs revealed themselves while I was doing “nothing:” 1) a growing trend of domestic violence, 2) the rapid spread of HIV in our community and the lack of understanding about it, 3) the lack of healthcare in rural villages and 4) the inchoate movement of young women who wanted more rights. 

So I got better at not shocking myself when I heated my bucket baths, enjoyed the fellowship of filling up the buckets when the water came on, and I got to the real work.