Student Well-Being Opinion

Keep It Clean: A Principal’s Quest to Put Drinkable Water in His School

By Marilyn Rhames — April 04, 2012 4 min read
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Water. Every living organism needs it to survive.

One of my least favorite principals used water as a weapon. Of course he would deny that. The water cooler in the main office was expensive to maintain, he’d say, and it was a discretionary item, not a necessity. He told his staff to stop filling up our water bottles—only so much in a cup and not to keep coming back for more.

But what’s a teacher to do when her throat runs dry from educating students all day? Apparently we were consuming too much of the water so the principal moved the water cooler into his office, just behind his desk. He kept the cups nearby, too. If a teacher wanted a sip, she’d have to catch the principal while he was in his office and then request that he fill the paper cup.

I worked in the adjacent school building and was so thirsty one day that I couldn’t risk the chance of walking over to the main building and the principal not being in his office. Besides, the one time I did ask him for a cup of water, I felt so humiliated that I vowed to never do it again.

So guess where I turned? To the icky, I-know-I-shouldn’t-be-doing-this-but-I’m-just-so-thirsty student water foundation. It wasn’t 15 minutes before my stomach declared war on the germs. I got so sick that I could not come to work for two days.

Water-borne illnesses were occurring at Headmaster George Ntombova’s school every day, except the children were getting sick, not the teachers. Headmaster George runs an elementary school in the remote Cameroonian village in the Northwest Region of Ndop Plains. The area faces abject poverty with scarce electricity and no sources of clean drinking water.

The only way to drink safe water in Ndop is to buy it bottled, and the people living in the 12 surrounding villages are about as poor as poor can get. So when they need a drink, they often find themselves at the same stream that they bathe in, that they wash their clothes in, and that cattle drink from and defecate in. Sometimes the nearest water source is a clear, flowing creek and other times it is a muddy brown pond. But because of the lack of sanitation, they are all contaminated.

Headmaster George is a proud native of the land. He grew up very poor but managed to go to college and for eight years worked as a PTA teacher, an educator who is paid a meager salary by the parents while hoping to get picked up as a government teacher. Now he is the headmaster of Government School Mbunkong and leads 350 students and 4 teachers. (In Cameroon, the class size limit is 60 pupils per teacher, but many public schools have more than 100 mixed-aged students in a classroom).

Besides the overcrowding; the daily issues with student hunger and poor hygiene; and the fact that none of the students can afford to buy their textbooks and teachers aren’t given basic teaching tools—the children were getting sick. In fact, many of the students are orphans because their parents died from the lack of basic health care and from water-borne diseases like cholera and dysentery.

Headmaster George said he could no longer wait for the Cameroonian government to intervene. He and his PTA president attended a Water for Cameroon community meeting lead by Irish missionary Mike Toolan. Mike and Headmaster George worked together to dig a 18-meter deep well on the school grounds.

The water from this well, however, is still unsafe to drink. Water for Cameroon then donated two bio-sand filters that uses a specific type of excavated sand as a natural purifier that removes 99.9 percent of the pathogens from the water—even that brown, poo-infested water! At the end of each school day, students are able to fill up their water bottles to take clean drinking water home.

The filters were installed in December and from that time until February the number of student complaints of tummy aches fell from more than 300 to four (one of which was due to a non-water related medical issue.) This is evidence, George said, that these bio-sand filters work.

Plus the filters only cost about $30. This is one month’s salary for a PTA teacher and even more costly to the village farmers who live from hand to mouth. Therefore, donations to Water for Cameroon are GREATLY needed to help end preventable deaths. Globally, about 1.1 billion people don’t have access to clean water to drink.

I will be leaving Cameroon tomorrow to resume my comparatively lavish lifestyle as an American citizen.

I will drink directly from the tap.

I will take a long hot bath.

I will even water my neighbor’s lawn if I think it looks a little brown.

And when I return to my current school, I’ll fill my water bottle to the brim with the water from the water cooler in my classroom. Every classroom in my school has a water cooler for the teachers--and there are a couple in the hallway.

After I’ve consumed as much water as I want, I’ll remember Headmaster George with his 350 students and 4 teachers. Then I’ll say a prayer and make a donation to Water for Cameroon. I encourage every reader to do the same.

Photos: Marilyn Rhames

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