U2 Station Exclusive Interview with Rob Trigalet of The African Well Fund

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by Brenda Clemons, U2 Station Staff Writer

Why is it so important to dig wells?

Rob Trigalet, Vice Chairperson of the African Well Fund: Everyday thousands of people in Africa, some of them children, die from illnesses due to the lack of clean water. What I'm talking about is people dying just because they have diarrhea or parasites, not AIDS or malaria, but a bug or a stomach virus. In the west, this would not be tolerated. 10 or 13 people getting sick from lettuce at Taco Bell is national front page news. So, wells are easy and inexpensive to do and that's why the African Well Fund thinks it is important. Because it's something we can do, so we feel that we should.

How many wells have you built so far?

Our last total was 43 water projects but we are waiting on several reports to come in for projects that are nearly complete.

Were you surprised at the amount of money U2 fans have donated over the years?

Absolutely. The first year we asked for donations (2003), our hope was to raise enough money to build one well. We ended up building 13 in Uganda with our first fund drive and have raised over $200,000 since inception. We here at AWF think that U2 fans ROCK!

What African country has the most need for wells?

This is a difficult question to answer as I believe it would be hard to obtain objective information. But from a purely statistical viewpoint, I believe Ethiopia has one of the highest percentages of people without access to clean water.

How do you decide where to build each well?

We work with an organization called Africare based in Washington D.C., who actually have people on the ground in 26 countries in Africa. When we collect money from a particular fundraiser, we receive proposals from the Africare staff in D.C. who receive them from their staff in the field in a particular country and then we decide together how the money could be used to help the most amount of people in the worst situations.

What is involved in digging a well?

As I just said, there is a review process where Africare employees "nominate" water sites that will benefit the most people, they submit a proposal to the home office in their respective countries, which then in turn gets submitted to D.C. where it is presented to AWF. Once the project is approved and the money released, the local Africare staff will then purchase the necessary equipment such as trucks, if needed, supplies such as plastic liners, stones and gravel, concrete, etc. They will use the labor of the beneficiary community to help dig the water hole, lay the pipes, while the community will provide food and shelter if outside contactors are needed.

What is the reaction to the people when they see the first drops of their clean drinking water?

While we've never been there to see the "first drops" we're told it's quite the celebration. That's something that I think each of us at AWF hope to experience someday. I can tell you that on our recent trip to Uganda, where some of the wells are three years old, there was still a great amount of celebration and thankfulness on the part of the people we met.

Have you traveled to Africa?

AWF made our first trip to Africa this past September (2006)

What are your impressions of the land and it's people?

The countryside of Uganda is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been to in my life and I remember thinking, "why aren't there tourists just flocking to this place?" As for the people, the word that keeps coming back to me is generous. Generous in the sense that, they had no problem in welcoming us and telling us their stories. I just found the people we met so gentle and beautiful in spirit. I found a thankfulness that I hadn't encountered before.

I was amazed at many of the facts on your website -- especially those concerning women's health issues. I never thought of the lack of clean water as something that contributes to premature births or spontaneous abortions. Can you give a bit more information on this?

Unfortunately, when you talk about the struggle for water in Africa you are mostly talking about women and young girls. If people there have any money at all to send their children to school, the culture is such, that they will send the boys before they send the girls, or else, the seach for water is so time consuming that the children simply don't have the time to go to school. In Uganda, Steve, the guy who was filming our trip, thought it would be great if we would carry the jerry cans from the well to one of the houses in the village and let me tell you, I'm 5'10" and not a slight man and it was very, very hard work. I can't imagine doing that several times a day. And more so, I can't imagine doing all that work when the water you are carrying will most likely make you and your family sick. But as we were carrying these water cans I noticed that all the people were just laughing hysterically and I turned to our guide and asked him what was so funny and he said, "you are doing a woman's work." So, it is certainly a culture that is different to what most of us would be used to. But I found the women to be remarkable.

What about the safety of the women as they travel long distances to bring back water?

Certainly, I'm sure there are parts of Africa that are more dangerous than others. In the places we visited we were not made aware of any danger to the women.

Is wild life a problem?

Again we were not made aware of this. I don't think that it would be an exaggeration to say that it is probable that the most dangerous animal in Africa, in terms of numbers of victims, would be the mosquito and it's ability to carry malaria to vast numbers of people.

Do you guys listen to U2 music during your daily routine?

Well, unlike the other Board members of AWF, I have a wide range of musical tastes other than U2, but the rest of them are U2 FREAKS!!! (just kidding) Actually, I couldn't answer for anyone else at AWF, but for myself, I probably listen to U2 a few times a week, certainly not everyday. Volunteering for AWF is a lot of hard work and it takes quite a bit of our free time. But the fact is that AWF was started by a group of U2 fans who were inspired by Bono's work in Africa. And for me, its so inspiring to be a part of an organization that is so dedicated and determined to make a difference in other people's lives. So while we might not listen to U2's music every day, I think the spirit of the band truly underlies the work we are doing and hope to accomplish.

How is debt forgiveness and trade agreements related to the amount of clean drinking water in Africa?

I'm not sure that I can answer that question from any sort of informed view. I don't really consider myself a "numbers" guy. I find world trade and economics fairly daunting as a dinner subject. In fact when I go out to speak to people about the need for clean water in Africa, I tell them to throw out the numbers, that in a sense, numbers like 600 million people without clean water are meaningless to the average person, who can imagine 600 million people? Who can in their minds, comprehend 3,000 children dying every day? So, to try and answer your question, in my opinion, every dollar spent on debt repayment is a dollar not available to the goverments of Africa to spend on infrastructure in their own countries, whether that be roads, electricity or water.

What effect does poverty have on conflicts in Sudan and other regions?

Again, when I signed up to serve on the Board of AWF, I wasn't and still am not anything close to an expert on the problems facing Africa. In fact, one of the things that attracted me to AWF was the simplicity of the idea. You see, I, like most people I meet, see the problems of Africa on the T.V. and I think to myself, "that's horrible, but what could I possibly do?". I think that AWF, by concentrating on just one aspect of the problems in Africa, water, empowers our donors to see a tangible way of helping and seeing results. So all that to say, in reference to your question, it is obvious that poverty leaves populations more vunerable to the effects of a conflict. In an area like Sudan where people tend to live near viable water sources, conflict drives people from their homes and then places tremendous strain on the water souces in the areas where refugees relocate to.

I heard Bono speak at Penn. U. He made a joke about building wells but the women still walk the distance to watering holes to get away from the men. This makes me think about traditions and what place water has in African society, their traditions, and their religious/spiritual ceremonies. Are there any you would like to see changed?

I am not familiar with this joke, but to answer the second part of your question, Africa is a place of thousands of traditions and religious beliefs, and while sometimes these beliefs can be frustrating to us in the west, especially in regards to AIDS / HIV, I strongly feel that there needs to be a respect of the people. For example, in the villages we visited in Uganda, it was explained to us that many people there have protein deficiencies, so Africare installed a Child Health & Nutrition program, where they have the children raise rabbits and fish for a source of protein and also carrots for a source of Vitamin A in their diet. We were told that many of the adults refuse to eat these "new" foods as they are foreign to them.

If you had one wish for Africa, what would it be?

That the rest of the world would come to see Africans not as a poor, needy desperate people but as beautiful and strong people, who, given the opputunities, are ready to work and to achieve great things.

What do you think needs to happen for that wish to come true?

It's about changing perceptions I suppose. It's about educating people that the problems of poverty and disease exist and that there are ways for each person to contribute, to make a real, tangible difference, in whatever small way they can. I feel hopeful about Africa, there are so many people who are waking up to the problems there and there are some brilliant ideas out there on how to solve some of the worst problems. Blood Water Mission comes to mind as well as Kiva loans. I feel like there is a sort of realization going on that this generation can truly change the way the world is and I'm humbled to be a part of whatever small role that AWF plays in that.

What is next on the agenda for the African Well Fund?

Well this year is already starting to fill up. We have several new partnerships with organizations like the American School Of Paris & Project H2O in Atlanta. This spring, we'll be releasing a documentry DVD about AWF. We'll have the Bono Birthday Well Campaign in March & April, and we've already collected several autographed items from different celebrities for our annual Got Water auction in November and we're also looking at another trip to Africa for 2008. The most exciting part is the growing amount of people and organizations that continue to contact and ask us how they can help.

Editor's note: If you would like to help the African Well Fund, please visit their site (africanwellfund.org) to help build a well for Bono's Birthday anytime between March 22 - May 6, 2007.

Copyright © 2007 U2Station.com. All rights reserved.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on April 5, 2007 4:13 AM.

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