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Growing up a girl: meeting Solo and Ze

WaterAid's Emily Graham shares her experiences of meeting Solo and Ze, the two young girls whose stories we're sharing on London's buses this summer as part of our To be a girl campaign.

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17 Jul 2014 | UK

This spring I journeyed with WaterAid to the top of the red island - Madagascar - to four isolated communities perched 2,000 metres up in the highlands.

This is where we met Solo and Ze, two young girls whose daily lives are wrapped around the struggle to find enough water for their families. It is a place where people live day by day. The focus is survival. The girls dream only of good health and safe water.

It's all on the girls

Solo and Ze are bright young girls, chattering to each other and turning the interview around on me, asking questions about my life, my family, my home. I was struck by Solo's gentle nature: she's shy but with a spark, and sat close to me.

Solo is the only girl in a family of six children, her brothers both younger and older than her. She left school last year, at 12, which she told us was her own decision, though clearly made out of a duty to her family.

Ze is third in a family of seven children and the oldest girl, making it her job to fetch water each day; she, too, has left school because of her household duties.

Heavy responsibility

We hiked to the water point with the girls, watching as they scooped water into their jerry cans, using their hands to clear scum from the surface.

The jerry cans hold nearly 20 litres of water. They are unbelievably heavy. I managed to move one, but there's no way I could carry it any distance. I winced as I watched Solo hoist it up her small frame and onto her head.

The girls, of course, were matter-of-fact. This is their life.

Solo and Ze carry jerry cans in Madagascar
Solo and Ze get ready to carry the heavy jerry cans of dirty water home to their families.
Credit: WaterAid/Abbie Trayler-Smith

Solo's story

I asked Solo to talk us through her daily routine.

"I wake up at 5 am, it's quite dark, the sun is just rising and red and it's cold,” she told us. “I go to collect water as soon as I wake up.

“The walk is very difficult, it's very narrow with plants all along the side of the path that are spiky and hurt our arms. I have been tripped by coarse grass on the way back. I hurt my knee and then I broke my jerry can.

“I collect water, and then I prepare our breakfast. After that I collect wood for cooking. It's heavy, sometimes if we find a lot, it can be as heavy as a jerry can. We really have to go slowly when we come back with it.

"It was my choice to leave school. I said to my parents, 'you can go ahead and continue doing what you are doing for our living and I will stay home to do everything else.'"

Ze’s story

Ze is 12, but she looks younger, with a big bright smile.

“I was seven when I started carrying water,” she told us. "I wake up and I go directly to fetch water. The pathway is very steep. And when I am in a hurry it's very dangerous. I fall. If there are snakes I have to go away from the pathway and I may slip.

“I carry a 20-litre jerry can. I balance it on top of my head. Sometimes I have to fetch water five times a day and when people are coming to help us in the fields, it's more, around seven.

"The smell of the water is so bad. When we drink from this water, we suffer from diarrhoea.

"I no longer go to school. I stopped last year because my parents were in difficulty, and needed me to go fetch water. I had no choice. I liked school very much, because I could learn how to write.

"I want to change my life now; I want to go back to school. I would like to learn more. I really want to be educated. I like writing.”

Solo and Ze in Madagascar
  Solo and Ze often help each other with their chores, such as pounding rice or washing dishes.
Credit: WaterAid/Abbie Trayler-Smith

The road ahead

Solo and Ze are best friends. Like 12- and 13-year-old girls around the world, they talk about everything. But their conversations don't focus on music or boys. Even at this young age, their lives are consumed by the need for water.

Ze told me: "Solo and I talk about anything, if we start talking about having the water point up here, we don't stop talking until we get back.

"When I have a family it will be totally different. I hope we will be able even to wash and do our laundry here at home. And when we will have the water point up here, that old water point can be used for the rice field, it would be good for tomato and onion growing, so there would be more food.

"In the future, I will take care of my parents, like they have taken care of me. With clean water I will be stronger, I will be healthier. When water comes to my community, it is going to be wonderful here."

Will you help Solo, Ze and thousands of girls like them this summer?

WaterAid works with small, remote communities like Solo and Ze's to provide safe water sources.

This summer, the Department for International Development has agreed to match donations to WaterAid's To be a girl campaign. With that help, we believe we can change lives, and bring safe water and basic sanitation to 130,000 girls in the world’s poorest communities. Make your donation here >

A longer version of this article was first published on the Huffington Post website.