“I could smell my breath against the bandanna. I tried it over my mouth to protect myself from the dust filled air, but my throat was still sore from breathing it. Soil caked my hair and eyebrows; my eyes felt dry as paper. A United Nations Land Cruiser, with its radio antennae wagging into the limitless sky, overtook us on the right and kicked up a plume of dust from the road. I rolled up the last crack in the window, but dust continued to blow through the vents. Baboons watched us curiously from the roadside.
Three of us sat crammed in the backseat of a double cab pickup. Our sweaty backs stuck to the vinyl bench as we drove over a bridge across the rushing Nile River toward a place called Lira. We were on the final stretch of what felt like an endless journey from Nashville, Tennessee, through Kampala Uganda, and then north for five hours through a region marked by a generation of violence and fear. It was 2005, almost twenty years since the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) had begun waging guerrilla warfare in northern Uganda – raiding villages, capturing children and raping women.
Brakes. Brakes. Brakes!
Men in military uniforms appears on the road ahead, guns pointed at our truck As we slid to a stop, a solider approached the driver’s window, and three other men with AK-47s surrounded the car. They were angry, and they asked our driver something we could not understand. His response was apparently unsatisfying to them. They gestured for him to get out of the vehicle.
“Not today,” our friend Vincent responded from the passenger seat.
“We have visitors.”
Looking inside the window, the armed men saw Edward, our Ugandan colleague, and my friend Joel and me, white Americans in our early twenties.
I don’t know how I got here, I thought, but I know I made a mistake, I closed my eyes against a rising nausea.
More talking. Angry negotiating. Then I felt us start to move again. I opened my eyes and I looked out the back window to see the soldiers waving, laughing at us.
“What did they want?” I asked, breathing the dusty air again.
“A bribe,” said Edward. “They thought if they could scare us enough, we would pay them off.”
“But we would do no such thing,” Vincent added. “They are the cowards.”
As we continued on in the dust and the heat, military personnel still lining the roads, I felt like a coward, too.
Joel and I were there to visit the small town of Lira, where more than a thousand people lived in an internally displaced persons camp. Our fledgling organization, Blood:Water Mission, had sent us to Edward and Vincent’s well-drilling operation so they could build ten clean water wells in Lira as a pilot project. This was our opportunity to see what had already been done and visit the camps where more progress was needed.
We finally reached the outskirts of Lira, where makeshift shelters pack both sides of the road-hastily constructed huts with mud and sticks for walls, thatch and tarps for roofs. The instant we turned into the camp itself, crowds surrounded our vehicle. Joel and I got out amid a rush of children, chickens, and goats.”
(One Thousand Wells, xiii-xiv)
Jena Lee Nardella started Blood:Water as a passionate, idealistic, and innocent 21 year old woman who believed she had the power to save the world. The lessons that emerge from the struggle of fighting for her dream are the simplest, clearest, most dejecting, and yet most fundamental truths that can be known. In this book, One Thousand Wells, she introduces us to a concept known as the Long Defeat; a battle that cannot be won, but one in which we should and must engage in anyways.
She takes us from an affluent neighborhood in San Fransisco where living is easy and the forgotten are pushed to a place where they can be seen no more to the vast expanses of Africa and some of its blighted people who must labor for hours just to get their basic needs met. Her dream is born from her love of God and encountering a homeless man in San Fransisco on Geary Street at the age of 8.
“He was a tall black man with sunken eyes, standing on the edge of the sidewalk. He balanced himself on the balls of his feet, calling out to passerby. Calling out to me.”
She explains how this encounter deeply effected her because of the fact no one was paying him any attention. She thought, how could all of these grown ups be failing to pay attention to this defeated man who was in need. The convictions placed in her heart sounded clearly as she came to see how most of the world treats the neglected. She says:
“As I stood silently on Geaery Street with hamburger in my hands, I know that what happened to that man on the street was wrong. I knew that no human being deserves to be hungry or ignored or forgotten. Though I could not express it at the time, I knew that every person is worthy of dignity–no matter what.”
In the subsequent year, throughout her maturation, she nourishes and develops her the convictions to provide for those who are overlooked in the world. Through volunteering at her church to feed the homeless to creating a college advocacy group promoting the awareness and prevention of HIV/AIDS, her early struggles, efforts, and triumphs help build up her confidence in the ability to fight for change and make a difference. While she did face difficulties and problems in fighting for HIV/AIDS awareness in college, she was still in the most protected environment of America, a college campus. In her next chapter, though, her cause gets exposed to the harsh and unforgiving realities of life outside the confines of comfort and abundance.
Once she graduated from college, she founded the Blood:Water organization to fight the lack of access to clean water in Africa as well as fight the spread of HIV/AIDS there. With the assistance of a rockbound she had deep admiration for as a child, Jars of Clay, a few rouge activists who deeply identified with her cause, and some one-off funding campaigns, she began her journey.
The group, God inspired and led, decided that they wanted to help the communities build wells, partnering with local African organizations to empower these communities so they could have access to water and have a baseline defense for the spread of HIV/AIDS. They would help the communities build the wells and not just build the wells for them. This proved to be the one differentiating factor that became the secret to true, long lasting changes in the community. Previously, organizations would come into a community, build a well there, and leave with little interaction with the people. This caused two problems that would prevent the longevity of the projects. The first problem was that because the wells were just built for them, once the well inevitably stopped working or ran into problems, no one knew how to fix it because they were not taught. Leaving the people just as hopeless as before, and rendering the work that the organization did useless. The next problem, which was only identified with trying the alternative way was that when they were not involve in the process of creating the well, they did not feel attitude to the well. They had no feelings of pride or ownership of the well, which made them not care as much. But conversely, when people were the main builders and project managers of the well and when they were the catalyst of the site, they were proud of the work they had done. The whole community accepted the well and felt like they had accomplished something upon completion. They felt as if they owned the well (which they did) and that they were responsible for its well being and upkeep. Throughout the process of learning how to build the well, they were also equipped with knowledge of how to fix it. This process is the only way longstanding change can happen.
“if you give a hungry man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.” -Lao Tsu
The group started out with a rather ambitious goal to say the least. They figured to prove that this project was God’s doing and that God was with them, they decided that they would set out to build (que title of the book) 1000 wells in Africa. A number that seem completely unfeasible for any organization, let along one as small, underfunded, and limited as theirs. But through unending belief in their vision, faith, fearless devotion to those they were serving, and whole hearted support from local organizations and communities, Blood:Water completed its goal and to date has provided water and HIV/AIDS support over over 1 million people in 11 different African countries.
This journey was full of triumphs and highs, victories and celebrations, progress and momentum. But with such glorious achievement came an equal amount of tragedies and defeat. From the freak accident deaths of two members of the organizations to the uncovering of rape and sexual abuse by teachers of one community, to corruption and deceitful nature of the leader of a local African group they were helping to the loss of innocent lives that they had come to know and were not able to provide relief in time, the organization endured a lot. And this took its toll on the group. Especially the groups leader, Jena. And it is this duplicity, this two-faced aspect of change that discourages so many people from continuing the fight. The most beautiful part of this story is not how much they accomplished, but how she dealt with the unending onslaught of defeat and discouragement. How she was able to see how hideous and unpleasant the world can be sometimes and still continue the fight. In the next few passages, we see the truths that she has uncovered.
The Long Defeat
After a recent bout with corruption in one of her groups most trusted members, the accumulation of all the tragedies, horrors, and hopelessness seeped into her being and took a toll on her perceptions of the world – leaving her to wrestle with some of her stark and bitter experiences.
“I thought the communities in Marsabit that worked tirelessly to construct the rain tanks only to face a year of drought. I thought about my dear friend Lillian who compassionately cared for village communities only to have her life taken in an instant of reckless driving. it thought about the women’s groups who would no longer progress in their water projects because of Moses’s greed, and the employment struggles that John gideon and Elizabeth were facing because of his bad decisions. I thought of the girls in Lwaala who were being rape by their schoolteachers, the babies who died in their first moments, the women who had so little power in life that they could not protect themselves from a deadly disease. I thought about Leah and how many times she had cheated death, knowing that there would be a night when she does not win. I thought about the American church holding their wallets tight, stuck in the weeds of wrong questions. I thought of the convictions that crumbled from Joel’s hear to the much of the Lala dirt. And the life that was lost in Brooke.
Cynicism won me over. I really was the girl Most Likely to Devote Her life to a Lost Cause. But it was no longer a compliment. Africa was a fool’s errand, and I was the fool who thought that my childish compassion on a San Francisco street corner could fix a continental crisis. Love the world in all its doubt and darkness. As I limped my way home, my answer was an easy no.
And with everything that has happened to her on this journey, she realizes that
“The greatest challenge is to attach yourself to the cares of the world and still keep going. To know the world and love it still”
Reeling from this overwhelming feeling of despair, she sought counsel from a friend who had become a sponsor of her organization and who was a 20 year resident of Washington D.C. and vocal activist. He offers a different approach to attaching your heart to the world.
“The world is a tough place to live, Jena, but there is nowhere else to live.”
“But since the world is a tough place to live,” he continued, “we have to live with what is proximate.”
“People have wanted to make the world a better place for thousands of years. It often seems like the world wins. That makes it hard to keep going.”
“You know too much now, you know that Africa, like Washington, is more complex and more disappointing than you had hoped it to be. Like a lot of people, you want to throw your hands in the air and give up so you can protect your heart from further wounds.”
In fighting for change in the world, he suggests
“The other option would be to choose to enter the world, still knowing what you know. That means believing that it is better to do something than to do nothing. That justice somewhere is better than justice nowhere. You can choose proximate mercy for a certain group of people, even though you know that as hard as you try, you will not be able to achieve all you set out to achieve in the world.”
“Choosing to live proximately does not mean you’ve lowered our standards, it means you’ve decided to be honest about the world. And still live by hope.”
True hope is always hard. It is not a passive wishing. It is an active exercise, a choice, an intention. Hope means giving up apathy and desire and instead embracing the uncertainty that terrifies you. It is the sacrifice of keeping your heart soft.
A doctor she met during her work who was criticized by some in his approach to medicine in those regions also expounded on the idea. Instead of trying to offer bare bones care to the largest amount of people he could, he focused on literally delivering the best care he possibly could to individual patients by walking to their houses and giving them their necessary medical treatments and medicines to prevent their specific illness. He says:
“I have fought the long defeat and brought other people on to fight the long defeat, and I’m not going to stop because we keep losing.”
In the wake of Moses’s betrayal, our struggles in Lawala, and Brooke’s death, I came to understand better what Dr. Farmer meant. To pour resources into small African organizations instead of large established international agencies is to dwell in the valleys with people at work rather than enjoy the mountaintops of big promises and fat checks. To fight for clean water and HIV/AIDS support in some of the most difficult places in the world is a long, slow sail.
A vision for change is thrilling when you stand behind a soup kitchen counter or in a classroom buzzing with ideas or in the back room of a tour bust that overflows with dollar bills. But when you’re face-to-face with human depravity — sometimes others’ and oftentimes your own –it is extremely difficult to keep pressing forward with any conviction that it is worth it.
In wrestling with all of these heartaches, she concludes that even with the overwhelming forces that are working to prevent, impede, and sabotage her work, she must continue the fight anyway
In a world where the winners are the ones with the money and the power and the privileges, then the losers are the materially poor, the oppressed, the forgotten, the meek, and the marginalized. To wear the jersey for the underdog is to watch others point their fingers and say: Surely, you will not win. And if those are the rules of the game, if losing is guaranteed, do I want to be on the side of the losers and wage the long defeat?If the losers include Leah in Lawala and Pamela the widow in Kano Plains and HIV-positive Bill from Spokane and Mark in a Colorado shelter and one homeless man on the streets of San Francisco, then yes, I want to be on the losing team.
We don’t seek to love so we can win. We seek to love for love itself. That truth above all freed me to keep my commitments to Blood:Water, to my faith, and to Africa.
She defines the long defeat and the solution to the struggle for change as this
It means admitting that the world is indeed a hard place to live, and it will likely break our heart if we keep engaging with it, but we will choose to hope anyway.
The faithful actions of loving one person at a time, working for justice one place at a time, providing water one village at a time–that is how we love the whole world. That is the third way.
In closing, she reflects on the truths that emerged from her journey of being inspired to help the world and meet it where its at, to meeting it face to face and seeing how ugly it can be, to accepting its cruelty and still offering her love as she initially committed to
“Do not depend on the hope of results,” wrote the monk Thomas Merton to a young activist, but instead, “struggle less and less for an idea, and more and more for specific people.”
My vision of grandiosity fell apart, and I know the grief of letting go of the idea of saving the world.
The challenge is to wake up each day and live out your vocation in the same way true change happens in Africa: slowly by slowly, brick by brick… Vocation is a calling, an action, to be expressed wherever your feet are today.
I hope this encourages and strengthens you on your path in life. It is ok to get discouraged, it’s ok to get defeated, it’s ok to get heartbroken and have despair to set in. What is not ok is to stay there. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom.” We must never stop striving for victory.
“Vocation is a calling, and action to be expressed wherever your feet are today.” -Jena Lee Nardella
The story of the One Thousand Wells project is the most beautiful journey I have ever seen. My favorite (non scripture) book I have ever read. Hearing Jena’s fight and struggle not only with the realities of the world and the ever-frustrating resistance from the world, but also with herself and her faith is the most reassuring and inspiring story I have ever read.
To Jena Lee Nardella, thank you so very much for sharing your journey with us and may God continue to bless and guide you.
If this organization’s story touched you, then please support Blood:Water. They are an incredible organization that focuses on the slowest, most sustainable, and most successful way to create change; empowering the community to help do it for themselves.