WASHINGTON POST/Immersed in Goodwill/WALKING FOR WATER

By Pamela Oldham
A version of this article was originally published in The Washington Post on April 23, 2004.

When Kristen Karinshak, 16, is thirsty, she just gets water from the faucet in her Leesburg home. So she was surprised to learn from author Sobonfu Somé that parts of her homeland of Burkina Faso, a West African country about the size of Colorado, don’t have running water.

Karinshak said she learned that mothers from the country’s Dagara tribe and their children walk for as long as six hours to reach the nearest water sources, which consist of creeks and hand-dug wells. After filling jugs, they place the heavy containers atop their heads and begin the long journey home, where the water they have drawn and carried will be used for bathing, cooking and drinking.

After hearing Somé speak at Heritage High School in Leesburg last year, Karinshak decided to take action. Even though she had never led a fundraising event, she planned and organized a walk to raise money for the Dagara people. “Walk for Water” will be held May 8 at Morven Park, and Karinshak hopes to raise $45,000 to build six wells.

“The story of the Dagara people really touched me,” Karinshak said. “They honor children above all else. From the moment you’re conceived, the Dagara believe you have a special gift to give to the world.”

Fifteen Loudoun County teenagers have joined Karinshak, volunteering to sign up walkers and solicit donations from area businesses and residents. Most of the teens are from Ashburn and Leesburg, and some have met for the first time — all drawn to helping an outwardly impoverished community.

But they didn’t take this project on to bolster their high school résumés. Instead, they say, they have been moved to honor and help preserve a way of life they admire, a culture they wish they could experience here. The teenagers say Dagara has its priorities straight.

“Dagara is a microcosm for a good family,” said Heather Blitch, 18, a senior at Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn. “It’s a whole country that’s connected, that values community and its kids. That’s so cool.”

During her visit here last year, Somé spoke at several area schools and libraries about Dagara’s rich history and ancient teachings that celebrate children and community. Although Somé now lives in California, she returns to West Africa every few months. “I’ve never really left home,” she said in an interview. “I’m just wandering.”

Susan Hough, a Leesburg social worker, is helping the Loudoun teenagers obtain sponsorships for their walk. In the past year, she has gotten to know Somé and has learned more about the Dagara culture.

“The Dagara believe that every child that comes into the world has a specific purpose in life,” Hough said. “It’s the community’s responsibility to help children fulfill that purpose. It’s a beautiful, rich culture.”

According to Hough, the Dagara people support one another through difficult times and actually embrace problems because they view them as a natural part of life, a way to renew spiritual grace and bolster the community’s peace. Mistakes are seen as opportunities for individual and group learning. Personal trials help bring out the best in people.

The ways of the Dagara appeal to the 16 teenagers who say that traditions involving the entire community, particularly those that involve adolescents, contrast sharply with life in the fastest-growing county in the United States.

“It’s an entirely different culture. They don’t even have a word for divorce,” Blitch said.

Liz Marshall, 16, a junior at Loudoun County High School in Leesburg, said she admires the Dagara tribe’s strong community.

“If you have a problem, it’s everybody’s problem,” Marshall said. “Everybody helps you [handle and solve] it.”

Somé said she, too, was troubled and saddened by the differences she has seen between American culture and her own.

“Here in the United States, children are viewed as possessions,” she said. “Nobody’s taking responsibility for them. Nobody’s around to tell them, ‘This is not good.’ Children here are parenting themselves.”

The Loudoun teenagers spoke longingly about their desire to have members of their own community adopt some aspects of Dagara philosophy. They complained that sometimes their own “village” doesn’t pay enough attention to their needs.

Kelly Gibson, 16, a junior at Loudoun County High, said that lately it seems houses have become more important than people. He misses picking blackberries that used to grow near his Leesburg home, the field now replaced by development.

The other teenagers said their leisure-time options include “going to the mall or going to the movies.” They would like that to change. They also said Loudoun’s sense of community could be greatly improved if more adults — not just parents — supported teenagers by attending school functions and events.

Blitch said, for example, it was heartening to see so many people turn out for memorial services held recently after two of her close friends were killed in an automobile accident in Ashburn.

“But where were all those people when they performed on stage, when they were doing great things with their lives?” she asked tearfully.

The teenagers say that community support for sports events is usually good but that most adolescents would also like acknowledgement that other endeavors, such as art, poetry and drama, are also valued.

“Everything’s changed so much here since I was a little kid,” Marshall said. “I used to be able to walk down the street, carefree. Sure, my mom used to tell me to watch out for strangers. But now, everyone’s a stranger.”

Hough says she thinks Somé’s message of a connected community resonates with U.S. teenagers because many of them feel lost, misunderstood and abandoned by adults.

“Especially when you consider what some of our kids are doing — drugs, sex and violence — and all the complaining we’re doing about children not stepping up and being productive, we really need to get behind teenagers who want to do something good in the world,” Hough said, such as the ones organizing Walk for Water.

“We need to show kids they can make a difference.”

Walk for Water will take place, rain or shine, May 8, on the grounds of Morven Park’s Equestrian Center. Registration begins at 7 a.m.; 5K and 10K walks start at 8:30. Potential sponsors can call Susan Hough at 703-505-5152. Financial donations will be accepted before and during the event.

Somé will attend the post-walk celebration, scheduled for 10:30 a.m. After the prizes are awarded, Somé will lead attendees in a water celebration native to her tribe, in thanks for the gifts that will be provided to her village.

Event registration is $20 for adults and $10 for students. For more details and online registration forms, visit www.walkforwater.org

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