An Olympic challenge

Collecting water in rural Uganda

When two Olympic rowers at the peak of their game describe a physical task as "gruelling", you can bet that the average man in the street would crack under similar conditions. But when that task is part of daily life for two girls aged 11 and 13, it illustrates the extreme challenges facing communities unable to live near a water source.

The girls are sisters, Jouvllet and Doreen, born into a subsistence farming family who work the land to survive. They live in Rwanyana, a remote hilltop village in Kabale district, Kigezi, the mountainous quarter of Uganda known as the Switzerland of Africa.

Twice a day they climb 4km carrying 40 litres of water. The two trips each take two hours, before and after school.

The rowers are also siblings, Richard and Peter Chambers. They won silver at the 2012 Olympics in London and were selected to represent Team GB at the 2016 Rio games in Brazil. 

Having heard about the plight of children like Jouvllet and Doreen through the work of Tearfund, they wanted to understand more about the problems the children face and how they could make a difference. So they travelled to Uganda to highlight the girls' daily challenge by walking in their footsteps.

The resulting film and photography, commissioned by Tearfund, was presented as a resource pack for supporters to download and share, helping to raise funds for water projects across Kigezi.

Above: Richard and Peter join Jouvllet and Doreen on their daily trek to collect water. Despite the athletes' fitness, they admitted the walk had been far tougher than expected.

Below: Bordered by Rwanda and DR Congo, the views across Kigezi from Rwanyana (6,700ft) in south west Uganda are beautiful. But living off the land is tough. Drinking water is scarce in the hilltop villages, and the agricultural land is tilled, sown and harvested by hand.

Below: Everybody has a role to play, and Jouvllet and Doreen's job is to collect the family's water twice a day, before and after school. They, like many children in the area, started helping to collect water at the age of five carrying 5 litre containers. At age seven they were carrying 10 litres, moving up to 20 litres when they were just ten years old.

To help stabilise the load for the journey ahead the containers are filled to the brim, then sealed with a potato - which is surprisingly effective and easily replaced if damaged or lost.

Three pictures above:  Lifting the 20kg load is a struggle, but once up, the girls' necks are strong enough to carry the weight efficiently on the long walk home.

In places the path is difficult to navigate when carrying a heavy load and can quickly become treacherous in unpredictable squally weather or when the mists come in.

Much of the route is isolated, which puts the girls at risk from attack by older boys herding cattle. Cultural norms make it difficult for people to talk about sexual assault, but many know that it happens. In the event that they lose a container (when running away) girls would rather say that they were chased by drunkards than admit that they were threatened or attacked by roaming herders.

Below: Despite the challenges, the sisters are part of a close knit family within a friendly village community. Born to Milton Byamukama Simon and his wife Vanessa, they have an older brother and six younger siblings, two of whom are disabled. Left to right: Bosco (16, brother), Vanessa (mother), Milton (father), Jouvllet (11), and Doreen (13).

Below left and centre: When the girls' mother (Vanessa) isn't helping in the field she can usually be found in or around her kitchen. Friends and neighbours often work together to prepare meals, which are then shared.

Above right: Jouvllet and  Doreen regularly help out with household chores. Whilst Jouvllet cleans pans, Doreen separates the sorghum from the chaff. There wasn't any breeze that day, so she had to blow. Sorghum is a versatile grain crop which can also be eaten as a dry snack and has a slightly sweet taste.

Below: Vanessa makes bread in the traditional way by boiling wheat flower in water until it forms into a kind of half baked dough which is then left to dry. The bread is eaten with 'emboga' a local bean sauce. Making bread like this with the utensils available requires considerable strength - and heat resistant fingers.

Given the rudimentary nature of the family kitchen, Vanessa managed to produce an extraordinary range of soups and dishes for her family. She also makes traditional 'porridge' using fermented sorghum. The taste is not dissimilar to Japanese 'Natto', a popular fermented bean dish which is either loved or hated in equal measure.

Left: Just like children everywhere, Jouvllet is naturally drawn to the kitchen, particularly when hungry or cold. But behind this cosy depiction lies the hidden dangers of solid fuel fires in poorly ventilated kitchens which can cause serious long-term health issues.

Many poor families around the world don't have the funds or the materials to ventilate kitchens. Cooking outside is not always practical and putting sufficiently large holes in walls or roofs often renders simple mud structures unsafe. According to WHO figures (2012 data), globally 4.3 million people die prematurely each year from illness attributable to pollution caused by solid fuel fires used for cooking.

Left: Attending school is considered to be a big deal by the children living in Rwanyana, as it is by children all across Africa - although the ability to regularly attend a full day is impacted by the necessity to collect water.

Below: Doreen and Jouvllet aspire to be head teachers when they grow up. 

Below: The film One Big Mountain, shot by Edward Wright and Jamie Maule-ffinch for Pretzel Films, illustrates the girls' life though a different medium. 

Peter and I both choose to row every day. But these children need to do what they do everyday just to stay alive. If I had to shadow the girls collecting water twice a day for seven days, I think by the third or fourth day I would be on my knees.
— Richard Chambers - Olympic silver medalist

About Tearfund

Tearfund is a UK based Christian charity committed to lifting some of the world's poorest communities out of poverty. The organisation works primarily through local church based partners and operates in more than 50 countries.

For more information or to make a donation:

Water programme in Kabale district

Tearfund partner, Kigezi Diocese Water and Sanitation Programme (KDWSP), was established with the aim of providing clean drinking water for its local community within a walking distance of no more than 500 meters.

They provide the materials and local craftsmen to help communities build rainwater harvesting tanks. They also help to protect existing natural water springs which feed gravity flow schemes serving communal tapstands. These are used rather than boreholes in Kigezi where the terrain makes drilling difficult.

A simple rainwater tank can make a huge difference.

Collecting rainwater from roofs and gutters during the rainy season provides the water a family needs for most of the year. The water store means children like Doreen and Jouvllet don't need to make the long journey to the lake each day. Instead they can spend more time in school, strengthening their future prospects.

Below: Milton, Vanessa, Jouvllet and Doreen, stand next to their (almost complete) water tank which will harvest rainwater from the roof of their home. Friends and neighbours (who will share the resource) helped build the tank, with the materials and a local craftsman supplied by KDWSP who in turn are funded by Tearfund.


Special thanks to Milton Byamukama Simon's family and the Rwanyana community.

Richard and Peter Chambers, Kenneth Twinamatsiko, Rev Agglay, Helen Crawford, Ailsa McCaig, Jamie Maule-ffinch, Edward Wright, Steve Adams and Tim Magowan

Above: Edward Wright (cinemaphotographer) and Jamie Maule-ffinch (director) with Steve Adams and Helen Crawford.

Above: Richard shares a joke with Doreen as they stop for a rest along the route - and wait for the media team to catch up.

Above: Richard and Peter Chambers with their friend Tim Magowan who arranged the trip to Kabale in south west Uganda.

Above: The sun setting over Kigezi, which covers the districts of Kabale, Kisoro and Rukungiri in south west Uganda.