Help them shorten the distance

Via A Mighty Girl

At the Paris Marathon last Sunday, Siabatou Sanneh of Gambia stood out from the other racers — in addition to her race number, she wore traditional Gambian garb and carried 45 pounds of water on her head. Sanneh, who had never left her home country before, participated in the marathon as part of an effort to raise awareness of the difficulties African women face in accessing clean water. While she walked the race, she also wore a sign that read: “In Africa, women travel this distance everyday to get potable water. Help us shorten the distance.”

Sanneh, a mother of four, lives in a small village of 300 people and started carrying water when she was five years old. Now, she and two of her daughters, 12-year-old Nyima and 20-year-old Mamina, carry water together: “I wake up in the morning, and go and collect water from a well. I have to walk 8 km (5 miles) there and back. I do this three times a day at least.” Each woman carries over 40 pounds of water on the return trip, wearing flip flops and often walking in extreme heat.

Sanneh was walking on behalf of Water For Africa, a charitable organization that’s working to draw attention for the need for bore-dug wells with water pumps, rather than the hand-dug wells that are common there. In Sanneh’s home country, Water For Africa estimates 200 to 300 water pumps would supply the needs of the whole population — an urgent need, since 40 to 60 percent of the current wells and pumping systems are deteriorating. Sanneh says, “I want them to help us dig bore holes, a sustainable water source, but not only more holes, I want more sustainable ones too. That’s all we need.”

While she couldn’t walk the full length of the marathon because “it was too long and the container on my head was too heavy,” Sanneh still captured the attention of people around the world. She’s pleased that her efforts have helped draw attention to the need for greater action to improve water access. For Sanneh, it would be a dream come true: “I don’t want my children and their children to be collecting water from the well when they are my age.”

To help support the building of boreholes in Gambia, visit The Marathon Walker, or learn more at Water for Africa.

An excellent novel that explores how the lack of access to potable water affects girls’ lives is “A Long Walk To Water,” for ages 9 to 14.

For two stories set in Africa which show how small changes can transform lives, check out “Beatrice’s Goat” for ages 4 to 8 and “Mimi’s Village: And How Basic Health Care Transformed It” for ages 6 to 9.

For more stories about the challenges faced by girls and women living in poverty, visit our “Poverty & Hardship” section.

And, for more true stories of inspiring girls and women who worked to change the world, visit our “Activist” section in Biographies.


  1. says

    …and having carried it, that’s 20 litres of water. I’m pretty sure we go through 20 litres of water (delivered by tap at the touch of a faucet) in a lot less than a day*. IOW: a hell of a lot of work for not very much of a crucial resource.

    *Except when we’re camping, and have to walk, oh, maybe all of 50 yards to the campground tap. You should see how many dishes I can wash in only a gallon or two…..

  2. Emily Vicendese says

    I bought the book “A Long Walk To Water” for my two kids as a result of reading this post. 🙂

  3. medivh says

    Eamon: during the last big drought in my area, the water authority was pushing hard for us to reduce our water usage to 150L/day, right around the time several regional towns were getting to having 14 days of water left or less. So, yeah… 20L wouldn’t go far in a household in a developed nation.

  4. weatherwax says

    A few years back there was an article how, in some areas, the young girls getting water were having to walk about nine miles each way due to drought, and were being preyed upon by wild animals. So the men were having to escort them with rifles. But the men didn’t walk, they rode in jeeps. Behind he girls, who had to walk.

  5. weatherwax says

    Probably not, but I’ll give it a try. The story always stuck with me because, while the authors were rightly horrified by the idea that the girls had to walk nine miles, and were being killed in the process, they didn’t seem to see the problem with the men riding in jeeps while the girls still had to walk.

  6. says

    Um. Jeep. Which is, um, right there, and, um, making the trip anyway. Which, um, has a cargo capacity in, um, the hundreds of kilograms range. Where, um, one litre weighs one kilo. Which means, um, you don’t need a squad of girls — just a driver, a helper, and a big tank or two. In the back of the jeep. Right?

    What am I missing?

  7. weatherwax says

    Eamon Knight, but if we put the water in the jeep, what would the girls carry?


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