'Magi Safi': Bringing Clean Drinking Water to Kenya

Ambassador Chris Brinlee Jr. travels to Kenya on behalf of LifeStraw's Follow the Liters campaign, bringing clean drinking water to hundreds of local schools
March 22, 2016Words by Chris Brinlee Jr. Photos by Chris Brinlee Jr.

The day before I left for Nepal, I checked my email and was surprised to see that some spam had made it through the filters and into my inbox. The subject line read, “Trip to Kenya.” I certainly don’t have an estranged African uncle who has willed me fifty-bajillion dollars and is eagerly waiting for me to go pick it up—but what else could it be? Curiosity got the best of me, so I opened the message up.

"[LifeStraw] had already delivered access to 'maji safi' — Swahili for 'clean water' — to millions of Kenyans...we'd bring access to 300,000 more."

The email was from LifeStraw, the makers of the small, lightweight, Personal Water Filter—and they were inviting me to photograph their upcoming #FollowTheLiters campaign. Over the course of one week, they'd be distributing 3,000 Community Purifiers to more than 300 schools. In this way, they'd be providing safe, clean drinking water to over 300,000 students in rural, western Kenya.

Though the trip conflicted with my schedule to climb a Himalayan peak in Nepal, I couldn’t say no; three weeks later I was on a Qatar Airways flight from Kathmandu to Nairobi, carrying little in the way of gear or expectations about the journey ahead. After arriving in Nairobi, I caught another flight to Kisumu, before driving a couple more hours to Kakamega where LifeStraw runs a field office, making it an ideal hub for the campaign which would be executed that week. There I met the staff of miracle workers who had already delivered access to “maji safi” — Swahili for clean water — to millions of Kenyans. With their guidance, we’d bring access to 300,000 more.

To help spread word about the #FollowTheLiters campaign, LifeStraw held a social media contest. Its seven winners were flown from the US and Canada to Kenya where they’d participate in the filter distribution firsthand. I was there specifically to document the contest winners’ experience. After a long but informative training day (and a kick-ass Halloween party) we loaded into a bunch of SUV’s and headed deep into the countryside. Our first stop was a school chosen for the inauguration, where education officials and media from all over the region had gathered to help us launch the campaign.

Before festivities commenced (which included speeches, original poetry, singing, and lots and lots of dancing) a group of students led us to their water source — a single spigot located five minutes behind the school — to bring up hundreds of liters for the new Community filters. Back at the school, LifeStraw’s local staff trained the teachers, students, and facilitators how to use and maintain the new filters and educated them on the importance of drinking “maji safi” — while the rest of the staff and the contest winners set up the remaining filters. Once our work was complete, we moved to a new school to repeat the process, working all week until LifeStraw’s goal for the area had been fulfilled.

Midway through the week, a few of us visited a school that was tucked into the backwaters of Lake Victoria and was only accessible by boat. That particular school had received Community filters the year before; they were happy to welcome us back. As the school’s principal led us on a tour of their grounds and facilities, he proudly announced that two of their students had been accepted into Kenya’s national university on full scholarship. He credited their success to Follow the Liters.

"Since LifeStraw introduced Follow the Liters, missing class is no longer an issue for those students, giving them a competitive chance in both education and life."

Allison Hill, LifeStraw’s Director, explained what he meant in more detail. Nearly all water in that region of the world is non-potable and rife with waterborne diseases. Historically, most people would drink the water without any sort of treatment, which often resulted in severe waterborne illnesses that could cause students to miss weeks of school at a time — or even cause death. Since LifeStraw introduced Follow the Liters, missing class is no longer an issue for those students, giving them a competitive chance in both education and life.

While there are plenty of scary statistics out there (for instance, a child dies from diarrhea every 21 seconds), I think Lifestraw's work in Kenya and other nations gives tremendous exposure to these issues in a firsthand way. So, what can you do to help? If you’ve ever purchased a LifeStraw filter (which is perfect for camping, backpacking, and emergency use), you already have. For each filter purchased in North America or Europe, a child in Kenya is provided with “maji safi” for an entire year. In fact, the Follow the Liters program is entirely funded through those consumer purchases.

Documenting the #FollowTheLiters campaign in Kenya provided a beautiful and inspiring firsthand look at the positive impact that for-profit companies can have and as consumers, we also hold the power to make an impact on the world through our purchases — by becoming conscientious buyers.

Whether he’s climbing in the Himalayas or writing from LA, Chris Brinlee Jr. is an adventurer and storyteller who can’t stay put for more than a few weeks at a time.


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