MALAWI, AFRICA -- Three weeks in a rural, mountainous area in Africa gave a Harrisburg pastor the opportunity to see how people can make a huge difference in undeveloped areas of the world.
The Rev. Laurie Fields pastors the Harrisburg First Presbyterian Church, and this fall she went to northern Malawi, a landlocked country in central Africa, to help install wells in rural villages. The Marion resident volunteered with the Marion Medical Mission, dedicated to making clean water available to small villages around the African continent.
Fields spent most of her time in the mountainous city of Mzuzu, the biggest city in northern Malawi, and also in Rumphi, a smaller town about an hour away.
"We were in the mountains most of the time, at about 5,000 feet of altitude." she said.
Fields helped install and dedicate 97 wells. Marion Medical Mission installed 2,984 wells overall this year in the countries where its volunteers worked.
"Each of those wells serves a village. Some of the villages have 50 or 60 people living in them. Others have 120-150," she said.
In all, more than 400,000 people now have clean water readily available in their villages. Many of those living in villages previously had to travel up to an hour and a half each way to retrieve clean water.
It's a lifesaving mission, Fields said.
"One of the best things about Marion Medical Mission is that it's not just us coming from outside and giving them something they may or may not be able to use," Fields said.
She said the wells are dug by villagers and skilled African laborers are hired to finish the wells. The Marion Medical Mission teams help install the pipe leading from the bottom of the wells and the pumps that draw the water.
While days were busy, knowing she was helping better the current and future lives of people there made each day rewarding, she said.
"The very last day, we had four villages, and they were all spread out. We left at 7 in the morning and got back at 4 in the afternoon and did four wells. We drove a long way between wells," she said.
The older women of the last village came to visit them, saying "thank you" in their language and then falling to the ground, Fields said.
"It's a cultural thing, a way of showing gratitude. Their gratitude was so great, it was weighing them down," she said.
It was a moment that drove home the reason she spent three weeks away from her Marion family and her church family.
"I remember looking back on that and thinking, while it was a powerful thing at the time, how many children they've seen die because of a lack of clean water, Fields said. "These are women who are probably in their 50s, 60s, 70s. They've got grandchildren, maybe great-grandchildren.
"When you think how the child mortality rate there without clean water is up to 60 percent, that means if you have five kids, three of them die before they turn 5. And you repeat that generation after generation.
"They've seen so much of that. I'm not sure we as Americans can really fully appreciate the depth of that change of perspective, that change of life."