IRENE’S smile is as big as it gets and her stature is the polar opposite. She is no more than 5’ tall and spaghetti strand thin. She is child-like in appearance and ancient in wisdom. She sees solutions that are broad to create opportunity for as many people as possible.
Irene is married to a man who was broken by his choices and found his solutions in bottles of alcohol. Together they have grown a family Irene is solely responsible for. For Irene, leaving her husband was never an option. To leave him would imprison her to a life of solitude. In her culture, she would be considered cursed and never allowed to marry again.
When we first met Irene, she was timid. She trained under our Women’s Water Initiative manager Diana. For the longest time, it was like Irene was a child hiding under her mother’s skirt. Even though she could construct a rainwater harvesting tank ‘in her sleep’, it seemed like Irene was never ready to progress. That is until she was. It took Irene 3 years to decide she was ready to move from a laborer to a mason, and another 2 years to become a manager. The increase in pay never drove her choice, only the wisdom of knowing when she was ready.
When she was ready, a powerhouse packed in a tiny package emerged. Irene took over managing a team of Women’s Water Initiative builders. Her team constructs residential rainwater harvesting systems in a village at the same time our team of men build a large scale system on the village primary school. With every new community, Irene trains and manages new women. Her team of lead masons stays consistent, and the team of laborers is comprised of women from that very village.
In the village of Ngurodoto, the fluoride levels are extremely high, leaving many children disabled. Aids has wreaked havoc on the population as well, leaving so many widows in its wake. It was in this village that Irene reached farther than we ever anticipated her to go. At the village meeting, when Irene stood to do a call for women’s laborer employment, over a hundred widows signed up. But she only needed 26 women to do the job. She could not bear giving abundance and security to some and not others. So Irene created rotating teams. Teams worked every 2 weeks. Meaning more women brought a paycheck home, more children had food to eat, and more women were left trained to move their rainwater harvesting efforts forward. In her own brilliance, Irene found ways to give more without costing more. Her creativity was remarkable and her heart is even better. Irene has a 7th-grade education, only her heart taught her how to help more without going over budget. As it is said, where there is a will there is a way.
In these times of great uncertainty, Irene’s perseverance teaches us that we have what it takes to be innovative by looking for solutions rooted in the greater good for all. If she can do it, so can we.