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Visiting Lalibela


Our guide today was Betaye, and he led us to the World Heritage Site of the famous rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. The churches are sometimes listed as the eighth wonder of the world. 

According to legend, the medieval king Lalibela had the churches carved as a holy pilgrimage site alternative to Jerusalem. The churches are carved from solid rock starting from the top down and then inside and up. Today, the churches remain active places of worship. Holy men are present in each of the churches, providing tourists a willing photo opportunity. 

The last church that was carved, and the most famous, is St. George. It is the only church carved in the shape of a cross. Along the walls outside the churches are holes that served as prayer rooms, monk homes, and tombs for unlucky pilgrims. A fertility pool exists at one of the churches that aided in the conception of a child if a woman bathed in its waters.

Betaye jokingly provided us with three suggestions for getting to the entrance of St. George Church; diving into the baptismal, climbing down a ladder, or using the stairs. We opted for the more traditional option down to the entrance, but we did brave scaling the wall as our exit! 

Our evening ended at the Ben Abeba Restaurant, which is precariously perched on the side of the cliff overlooking the valley below. It seem to be a Dr. Seuss-inspired design, and is owned and operated by a Scotswoman. The setting was perfect as we watched the sun descend over the almost surreal patchwork of the landscape below.


Exploring Addis


 W2T Executive Director Susanne Wilson is visiting our partners and projects in Africa. After several days in Uganda, she has been joined in Ethiopia by W2T supporter and veteran traveler Nancy Lehmann-Carssow.


After Nancy arrived this morning, we spent the day exploring the city. Our driver, Mulat, drove us through the labyrinth of streets that make up the Addis Ababa market.  The market offers an explosion of colors and smells and items for sale. The market is arranged in categories such as jewelry, pots and pans, cooking oil, spices, almost any item a person might desire. One whole section of the market is dedicated to recycled items including tires (used for making shoes), jerry cans, electrical parts, car parts..any kind of parts of anything. 

In addition to exploring the market, we witnessed the diversity that exists in Addis Ababa by the churches dotting its skyline; mosques, Greek Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Armenian, and Catholic. Ethiopia appears to enjoy a religious tolerance unparalleled in many countries in Africa. 

According to Nancy, the traffic in Addis makes the traffic of Cairo look calm. The horn is the tool of the trade for drivers.  Constant honking and dodging people, other vehicles, and the occasional donkey are all part of the constant movement of vehicles in Addis. 

After a bit of freshening up, we were treated to a traditional Ethiopian dinner and dancers in the style of Ethiopia. The dancers use their necks, shoulders, and heads and the movement is unlike any style of dancing I’ve ever witnessed. It is as though the dancers are void of bones. The buffet dinner offers both fasting and non-fasting goods. The non-fasting items were non-animal products, mostly vegetables and salads, and the injera with shiro (made of chickpeas and spices), which is are traditional foods. The dinner was accompanied by honey wine, which is a sweet, light yellowish colored wine made from the local honey. 

Tomorrow we are traveling to Lalibela, a World Heritage Site that is home to the famous rock-hewn churches.


Our last day in Uganda


The weather forecasts I checked before leaving the United States were very misleading. It has been extremely hot and humid in Uganda, interspersed with rain showers that provide a nice respite from the heat. The people use the resources they have available to them, taking advantage of the sun to dry the bricks they make from the red clay earth before curing them in the heat of a low fire. 

The sun also aids in drying coffee beans, vegetables such as cassava, and other foods. Drying is essential, since there is no cold food storage. 


As I was riding through the rural areas to visit water points, I noticed small solar panels sitting outside of their huts, which are used to provide power for low wattage lights and powering cell phones. 


One of the aspects of Water, Hygiene and Sanitation training provided to the villagers where water projects are supported is the education about latrines.  The villagers construct pit latrines using the same materials used to build their houses.  The education and training taught by our partner, International Lifeline Fund, is relayed through the use of pictures, drama, and the creation of songs.  Even the well site signage displaying the donors’ names and project partners use the back of the sign to instruct villagers on the correct and incorrect uses of the wells.


One of the differences I observed between Ethiopia and Uganda was the prevalence of bikes.  Bikes in Uganda are as common as donkeys in Ethiopia.  Bikes serve as transportation for people, jerry cans and anything else people need to get from one location to the next.

 As we prepare to leave Uganda, what will remain in my memory is the beautiful faces of the people and their quick smiles.



Auspicious signs for our partnerships


Our travels today took us to the northern part of Uganda to visit with our partner, International Lifeline Fund (ILF). We met with the local ILF staff and received a presentation on community health clubs. Community health clubs are created from the members of the local community and receive sanitation, health, and water training. The training is delivered via a community-based facilitator who delivers 20 trainings over a six-month period. Cultural change around water, sanitation, and hygiene is the ultimate goal. 

We also met with local water and development officials who collaborate with ILF across initiatives. One of those “only in Africa” moments occurred while we met with the local Chief Administrative Officer, when a baby goat entered the meeting and no one batted an eye. 

ILF also shared their stove project with us. We visited their stove factory and spoke with their Nepalese supervisor. The stoves are much more ecologically friendly, are more efficient, and reduce the smoke emitted and breathed in by the women who are responsible for cooking. The stove project has received international attention, as evidenced by the involvement of Notre Dame. The university is conducting research on the health benefits of the stoves, which currently cost $5 and are being implemented as part of the Health Club projects.

Finally, just as we were finishing our tour of the stove production, we observed the double rainbow seen at the top of the post, which we received as a positive sign of Water to Thrive’s partnership with ILF. 


Back to Africa: Day 1, Uganda


For the next two weeks, Water to Thrive Executive Director Susanne Wilson is traveling with our Ethiopia Project Officer, Gashaw Semeneh, to visit projects and partners in Uganda and Ethiopia. 

Today, Gashaw and I visited with Mityana Charity.  They are a nonprofit existing for over 20 years and supported mainly by donors from the UK. Our purpose in visiting with them was to determine whether they might be a potential future partner.  They focus on human rights, education, health, agriculture, and water. 


Geoffrey, Mitanya's Country Coordinator (center, above), arranged a variety of site visits, including a spring protection, hand-dug wells, and a borehole well that supported their coffee plantation, school, and surrounding community.

Some 280 students attend the school, including 24 girls and 18 boys who board there. The children learn the basic subjects, and also are exposed to an agricultural curriculum. The school uses the coffee plantation for hands-on experiences and a learning environment. In addition, the local farmers also learn from the coffee plantation as an example of model agricultural methods. 

The plantation serves as the school and coffee plantation workers’ food supply.  In addition to coffee, they grow corn, tomatoes, carrots, cabbage, eggplant, and jackfruit (above), among others. Sales of the coffee support the plantation workers’ salaries, the school teachers’ salaries, and water project costs. 

After a day of visiting water project sites, the school, the plantation and talking with community beneficiaries, we had time to think about all we had observed on the long ride back to the Gately Inn. Avoiding potholes, mud puddles, boda bodas (above, the ubiquitous motorcycles transporting people, animals, and products), and other drivers offers the exciting experience we refer to as an African massage. Today's "massage" will most likely help us sleep even more soundly tonight. 



Happy New Year!


Melkam Addis Amet! 

That's "Happy New Year" in Amharic, the language of Ethiopia. Ethiopians are celebrating their New Year, or Enkukatash, today. It's an important day in the Ethiopian culture, as the New Year's festival also symbolizes the beginning of good harvest weather following the rainy months. The beautiful yellow Meskel daisies that are a symbol of the celebration can be seen blooming in the highlands, turning the hillsides to gold.

Ethiopia still follows the Julian calendar, established in 25 BC. The Julian calendar divides a year into 12 months of 30 days plus an extra month, Pagume, which is five or six days long depending on the year. The Julian calendar is seven years behind the Gregorian calendar used by most of the Western world, so when you see references in Ethiopia to 2008, you're actually up to date!

The New Year's celebration includes religious observances, a traditional meal of injera and wat (essentially bread and stew), and girls exchanging bouquets of daisies and singing songs. You can learn more about the customs of Enkutatash here ... there's even a recipe for doro wat, or chicken stew. 

We wish all of our Ethiopian friends blessings in the new year!

Learning to make a difference



Lars Anderson spent this summer as an intern with Water to Thrive, traveling to Ethiopia and working on a guide for best practices for water point implementation. He shares his thoughts on what the work and experience meant.

The summer of 2015 was a time of learning, struggling, and growing all at the same time. I spent more time abroad than ever before and I lived alone in a completely new city. As part of a unique program offered through Valparaiso University, where I am now attending for my senior year, I was given the opportunity to serve with Water to Thrive in Austin and to travel to Ethiopia for the annual summer trip. Ethiopia was a truly amazing experience for me.

I’ve been reflecting on the idea that being partially immersed into another culture, especially in another country, can influence your perspective and how you understand and share that perspective with others. I have continued to grapple with that idea this summer through discussions with fellow students in my university’s program and conversations with those in the office. It has been especially helpful to view the idea through the lens of my work on a Best Practices Document for W2T’s implementing partners. The BPD, as it has been conveniently named, will serve as a guideline for implementing partners of W2T. Its purpose is to “ensure efficient and effective service delivery while maintaining desired quality standards.” It is a resource that will be available to NGO partners as well as a way for Water to Thrive to evaluate the quality of services their partners provide to rural communities.

The idea of the document sounds really great, and in our research this summer, Thomas and I have seen that there is a whole network of great resources out there for non-profits and NGOs that aim to accomplish something similar to ours. However, we have come to realize that those who work in international development must be very mindful of the role that we can play. Thomas had a consistent saying: “Never do for somebody else what they can do for themselves.” It became something we kept constantly in mind as we wrote the document because in the area of rural water supply, failure to work by that saying has caused many water projects to fail far sooner than they should. On their own and with organizations, many good-intentioned and qualified people have worked to provide clean water to those who need it, but have failed to fully grasp that it is community initiative, not just expert outsider influence, that allows for sustainable projects.

As we proceeded with the BPD, we wrestled with identifying the difference between areas where we are at liberty to require, or should rather just recommend. We also came across areas where we ought not try to offer anything because either we don’t know, we can’t understand as Americans, or we need to leave it open for the community to decide. To try to account for this, the principle of community initiative formed the basis for the BPD.

From location selection to long-term project maintenance, the community is to be fully involved. The communities to be served are chosen by Water to Thrive partners based on their need, but also on their willingness and ability to manage and maintain the water point. All beneficiaries of the water are required to pay, if they are able, a small monthly amount of money that is saved toward a maintenance fund, as well as used to pay a guard who ensures that the water point is not abused. All W2T projects are required to have Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) committees. These committees are formed before construction even begins and members take on different roles to manage the water point, as well as prompt community members to make decisions that are in the best interest of all. The community is expected to contribute to the construction of the project in different ways. That may include providing laborers or even paving a road for construction vehicles. In the experience of Water to Thrive, these initiatives and many others have led to successful and sustainable projects.  My hope is that Thomas and I were able to communicate humbly, accurately, and clearly that the BPD may become a useful resource for W2T’s partners.

My summer as a Water to Thrive intern was invaluable to me in many ways, and taught me countless lessons. I learned how to be a better team member, as Thomas and I worked to come to mutual decisions about the best, yet realistic, procedures. I learned to struggle with a tough task, to make a plan and make deadlines, to improvise when information is lacking or an email response won’t come. I learned about the constant need to put aside initial perceptions or ideas that I feel like should be used, and rather place focus on what may really be best for communities. I learned that success is sometimes found more in the process than at the end. I think this last lesson has been the most encouraging, since the final document didn’t include all the material we had planned.

It was an incredible journey, as I worked with great people in the office and in Ethiopia. I was sad to leave, but I am excited to see how the experience and lessons learned this summer will guide me forward in my senior year and after.


Exceptional Ethiopia: An intern's passion


Thomas Howard spent this summer as an intern with Water to Thrive, traveling to Ethiopia and working on a guide for best practices for water point implementation. This is the second of two posts about his time in Africa.


 The driving force behind my journey to Ethiopia was the deep desire to learn more about clean water implementation and to find out whether bringing clean water to those in need was a true passion of my heart — something that I want to do for a significant part of my life.


After our journey through the north was complete, we traveled to the south. When I stepped off the plane, all around there was green, a rich green the likes of which I had not seen in the north. And unlike the north, there was water abounding, from trickling tributaries to roaring rivers. This was a detail that I had not expected — I’d never envisioned such a lush and damp environment to be in Ethiopia.




We visited a school in the village of Chucho. There were so many children there. A well was being built on the school grounds and the principal, Adola, was going to be in charge of the committee responsible for the well.


Adola stood by the well, hand in hand with his young daughter. I got a chance to interview him, and he only talked about the children of the school. He told me about how the water was going to help the students attend school more often. He also told me about how the students were being taught proper sanitation so that they would no longer get sick. He rejoiced in the effect this would have on the children’s education and their future.




Adola’s passion for the children embodied the passion of all the parents that we encountered. I saw some amazing mothers while in Ethiopia. I could see how much they treasured their children in how they talked to them and treated them when no one was looking. I saw a mother teaching her two-year-old child how to wash his hands before eating. Another woman, carrying a large jerry of clean water on her back, was holding the hand of her little boy as they walked from the well to their home. These women love their children so much, a fact we can see by the hours they spend walking to collect and carry heavy jugs of water on their backs to their families.


I related to this situation and these women far more than I ever imagined I would. When I was growing up, my mother would always be at work, often working late nights. My mother wanted to be with us so badly, but our family knew that that was the way it had to be so that we could get by. I remember the pain that my mom had to go through by deciding to sacrifice spending time with us in order to take care of us.

I wanted the mothers in Ethiopia not to have to spend all of that time working so arduously, yet they had to for their children’s sake. Watching those mothers, looking into their eyes, joyful even after facing the greatest of tribulations, and staring into the beautiful eyes of their children, I think I found the passion to serve that I wanted to find in coming on this trip.


Ethiopia was an introspective, eye-opening journey for me. I expected to have profound revelations during my experience, but even in this moment of reflection I am realizing the deep impact this trip has had on me.

I always like to say, “You won’t know until you go.” I still think this is true, but I now believe this phrase carries more meaning. “Once you return, you truly realize.” That is the second and more important part for me. Looking back at my experiences with the communities in Ethiopia, I learn more from them each day. I know that I had these experiences for a reason. I am trying to figure out if my heart is still in Ethiopia, or if it has learned from Ethiopia and is looking to reside elsewhere. I am learning to be patient for God’s guidance, waiting for the right time and situation to share my heart with the world.   





Exceptional Ethiopia: An intern's perspective



Thomas Howard spent this summer as an intern with Water to Thrive, traveling to Ethiopia and working on a guide for best practices for water point implementation. This is the first of two posts about his time in Africa.

My journey to Ethiopia began long before I hopped in a cab to go to the airport. For the past five years, I have been wrestling with what I want to do with my life - there are so many options and possibilities. A little over a year ago, I decided to follow the suppressed passion of using my future career to help others in a radical way. I transferred to Texas State University and began to work toward a degree in Water Resources.

At the beginning of the year, I began applying for internships and wound up in a program called ServeHere. ServeHere connects college students with non-profits in the Austin area, and through ServeHere I got an interview at Water to Thrive. During my interview, W2T founder Dick Moeller asked whether I would be interested in traveling to Ethiopia this summer. I had had a conversation with my family exactly one week prior to this question and I had told them that it was necessary for me to see what it is really like to bring clean water to people in another part of the world. Water to Thrive offered the perfect reflection of this vision. I told Dick the same thing and the next thing I knew it was June and I was 38,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean, about to have my perspectives tossed into complete turmoil.


In my mind our journey is separated into two segments, the north and the south, with times of transition in the sprawling capital, Addis Ababa. We landed in Addis early in the morning and spent the day seeing the sites and learning some of the rich history of Ethiopia. I was never completely overwhelmed by the different culture that we were thrust into, but about halfway through the day I began to sense something different and unique about the Ethiopian people. It would take me a bit longer to glean the reasons for this incongruity.

In the northern part of Ethiopia there was a long and deep-rooted Christian history. We visited the monolithic rock-hewn churches of Lalibella and saw the eighth wonder of the medieval world. Eleven different churches were carved in 23 years. It seems impossible that mere men could have excavated the vast quantity of this hard granite in such a short time. It was a miracle that these churches were finished in such a short time. It is believed that men chipped away at the solid rock all day long and when the lights faded and the men retired from their work, drifting away into sleep, angels descended from heaven and labored through the night.


The faith of the Ethiopian orthodox people was easy to see in the way that they spoke of it. Children and teenagers trying to sell us crosses, rocks, and necklaces often swarmed us. Nearly every person we encountered had a cross bound and hanging from their neck. It was encouraging for me as a Christian to see another community of believers half way around the world.

Ethiopia’s rich history intrigued me immensely but being a tourist or “Forengi”, which means foreigner, was beginning to lose its charm. People followed us around town for hours, running after our bus, trying to sell us trinkets and crosses. It became a daily ritual to walk out of the hotel and find the young “traveling merchants” looking at us with a voracious appetite. I wanted to see Ethiopia in a light that was not varnished by the stain of tourism. I was enthusiastic about leaving the big cities and bouncing along the dilapidated roads for hours.  We traveled from the hills to the mountains. We were leaving behind cities of marvelous history and moving forward to communities hoping to build a marvelous future.


The mountainous landscape became my solace, the peaks at once impressing and puzzling me with their power. The dry mountains of Tigray, insurmountable in the narrow view, were but specks underneath the sky, which rose above teaching them humility. Oh how it affects a being to be among those citadels of stone. It is an indescribable, unquantifiable emotional event.

These mountains nearly halfway around the world showed me that perspective influences the shapes of our schemata in regards to places and people. The people in the communities that we visited personified these thoughts. They were bastions of strength, physically and in caliber. They toiled routinely without reprieve. Seeing them from afar they are small and seem filled with deep sorrow, but once you are among them you find yourself overwhelmed by their durability, diligence, and kindness. 

While in Tigray we visited the well sponsored by W2T supporters Homer and Mary Goering, who were with us for the journey. The visit was a surprise to most and unforgettable for all. The celebration was grand, far more flamboyant than any block party in Texas. As we gathered under the shelter, which provided temporary asylum from the sun, and shared thanksgiving and provided encouragement, we were provided nourishment. Though the community had little to spare, they gave more then they could possibly afford. Mary and Homer were showered in gifts and thanks.  Those who survived day to day with so little gave so much. I felt so greedy and dirty in their presence in this moment. I do not believe that there are absolutely good people in this world but some of the people in rural Ethiopia are truly exceptional. 


It was not the first moment that we were shown such immense and undeserved love, and it definitely would not be the last. This was when I began to push aside the veil in my mind surrounding the incongruity of the Ethiopian people from the society that I have seen my entire life. The villagers showed love to everyone that they met. They love strangers with a compassion that is greater than the love that we show our friends and next-door neighbors. I go through times when it is hard for me just to love lifelong friends.

How could they love like this? Even though they did not know us they loved us. It does not remind me of Jesus, but it makes me think about the way that he loved. Jesus knows and loves us, which is so much more fulfilling than just unconditional love. However, being loved regardless of situation brought a sense of comfort as well. Being surrounded by this love in the rural villages made you feel safe in a foreign land 8,000 miles away from home with an eight-hour time difference. Maybe love is easy. Maybe love transcends space and time. Maybe loving others instills a deep-rooted happiness regardless of our own struggles. Maybe love encompasses far more than our hearts can conceive.


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