Three-year-old Mariam’s ears prick up as she hears a line of fluffy ducklings cheeping as they waddle behind their mother along the narrow red earth streets of the Rubaga slum in Uganda’s capital city, Kampala.

Laughing, Mariam claps her hands to startle the ducklings. It's not loud enough to really frighten them, she's just playing.  

Like all the kids in her neighorhood, Mariam doesn't have any proper toys, so has to make her own entertainment.  Around her, other kids play a makeshift game of soccer with an old tennis ball, a small boy scratches a picture of a car in the dirt road, while a couple of older boys drag their baby sister along the road for a ride in an old broken suitcase.

The ducks are on their way back from a nearby spring. It’s a well trodden path for both the ducks and Mariam. For animals and humans alike, the spring is the community’s only source of water.

Mariam is the only child of 22-year-old single mom Rehema. Like the ducklings, Mariam toddles behind her mother on the way to and from the spring. It’s a journey they make four times a day to bring home enough water for drinking, cooking and washing.

Rehema and daughter Mariam outside their home in Kampala, Uganda.
Photo: Lynn Johnson | Ripple Effect Images

Even little Mariam carries a jerry can of water: while Mom struggles under the weight of two 22 pound (10-liter) yellow jerry cans, Mariam follows behind carrying a bright red 11 pound (five-liter) jerry can – quite a feat for such a young child.  After a while, Mariam pauses for a rest and to pour some of the water away - she's figured out how to lighten her load.  

Rehema knows the spring water could be risky for her daughter’s health. Kampala’s poorly constructed pit latrines and a high water table are a lethal combination that leaves spring water contaminated with deadly water-related diseases. Rehema and Mariam's personal safety is also at stake. With hundreds of people relying on the spring for water, crowds build up and fights often break out as patience wears thin and some people force their way to the front of the line. 

Despite the challenges of living here, like most mothers, Rehema's first concern is the welfare of her child. She's determined to give Mariam the best start in life. Rehema knows how important a good education is and is planning how to earn money to pay for Mariam's schooling. Rehema is saving to buy a sewing machine so she can learn to sew and become a fashion designer.

"I have high hopes for Mariam.  If I can learn to make clothes, I can earn money to educate her well, so she can do well." 

WaterAid has just begun work in Rubaga to help the community advocate for the extension of the city's piped water supplies into the neighborhood.  It's a model that has worked well in other slums in the city: communities have formed advocacy committees who have successfully negotiated for the introduction of pre-paid water meters that dispense safe, clean, affordable water to families in need.

Having access to safe, clean water would mean the world to Rehema and Mariam: it would free up hours of their time each day from water collection, time that could be put into building Rehema's sewing business. Just as importantly, she would have the peace of mind of knowing Mariam no longer risked her health with every sip of contaminated spring water. 

Rehema is hopeful they will be able to benefit from piped water soon. “It would change my life to have clean water and live in a better environment.”