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Photojournalist Laura Watilo Blake's Latest Exhibition Connects Cleveland to Uganda's Water Problem 

Water works

Laura Watilo Blake came face to face with the brutal realities of unsafe drinking water in East Africa when she joined Cleveland-based Drink Local. Drink Tap. on a journey to rural Uganda. As a photojournalist, Blake realized the power of images as she learned more about what was being done to provide access to clean water for hundreds of needy children and adults. Her photos, set to be shown at the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, show us Clevelanders what life is like eight time zones away. "Water is Life" runs through March 31 at WRLC. Blake and Drink Local. Drink Tap. Executive Director Erin Huber will be in attendance from 5 - 8 p.m. Feb. 25.

Eric Sandy: With the project at hand here, how did you get involved with Drink Local. Drink Tap. and the group's trips to Uganda?

Laura Watilo Blake: Alright, that's super easy. Erin and I were on the same rowing team through the Western Reserve Rowing Association. I remember it was Christmastime and we had a White Elephant gift exchange at Tremont Tap House. She brought this gigantic book called Blue Planet Run; it's an organization that brings attention to water-related issues. As we started flipping through the book and talking — she had been looking at water education through photography and video and art projects with students. As I sat there looking at the photos, I was like, "Well, I'll go. Let's go!"

ES: Had you been before? To Uganda?

LWB: I had just come back from Africa that year. I had gone to Senegal. There was one particular time when I was walking around the corner — I was on the coast — but there was this beautiful beach where people were swimming and fishing. Then you walk around this corner and there's this huge bay filled with plastic waste and trash. I was shocked — shocked that people were pulling their food from the same source in which they were throwing their trash. It just didn't make sense to me. So it was good timing, and we decided to make a plan and raise awareness of water issues — especially in Uganda, since she had made a connection with a Ugandan woman.

ES: I Google Map'd Mulajje, the rural village where you spent time, and it actually and maybe expectedly wasn't coming up. Could you place it for me geographically?

LWB: (Laughs) It's about two hours north of Kampala. You might find Luweero on the map. It's in the Luweero District.

ES: Logistically, your involvement took place over two summers, right?

LWB: Yeah, it was 2011 and 2012. The first year we went out there to do a site visit. Erin and Drink Local. Drink Tap. were there to do a feasibility study to see if there was even water on the property of this very rural school. The elementary school kids there had to walk two or three miles to get water everyday. Me and another filmmaker, we were making a movie as well — out of this project came a documentary project titled Making Waves. These photos are stills from that trip. They're related, but they stand on their own too.

ES: When you first went over to Uganda, were there any preconceptions you had that were shattered and ended up surprising you?

LWB: The first day on the continent, Erin had set up appointments to go the Nairobi slums — the second-largest slums in the world. So we arrived in Kenya before making our way to Uganda. It was shocking to see how people lived. So many people squeezed into so little area. There is no government support. They don't have trash collection, running water. It was amazing to see these tin shacks stacked up on top of one another. People were walking through dirty streets filled with trash. Everywhere you walked, you might have human feces to step around. It was shocking that people lived in these conditions. And, yes, I knew that this existed. But it was shocking to see it firsthand.

ES: Regarding water access in particular, what is daily life like for families in rural areas?

LWB: Things have changed a lot for this rural village. Prior to having the borehole built in 2012, kids would be walking three miles to go to a water source every morning and probably every afternoon. It takes away time from studying and from doing other things that they could be doing. Once the borehole was built on school property, it was not that far to walk anymore. And other things have happened in this community; water isn't the only concern they have. They didn't have access to electricity or medical facilities. Slowly but surely, they gained access to electricity over the past few years so they could study and work at night. The sun goes down at 6 every night, since they're so close to the equator. I should add that this is clean water — from the borehole — and other sources are contaminated. The water is tested; it's clean and fit for drinking. The borehole has enough water supply to supply 200,000 people if there were additional funds available. It has great potential.

ES: From a photographer's perspective, were there any images or scenes that captured the essence of this issue?

LWB: We spent one day going around the different villages in the community. It's a wide, spread-out area, but they have small pockets of communities. There were kids that were sick, suffering from malaria, suffering from who-knows-what, covered in flies and dirty clothes. There was even one case where $25 would have saved this child's life, and some of these people can't afford $25 for medical care. On the other side of things, you have the fact that kids are the ones who are collecting the water. We saw kids the most often. How do I put this? There's a kind of joy — even though this is water collection, it's time for the kids to get together and they can kind of play around the well. Their smiles are just so heartwarming and you know that they're going to have a rough life. Humans are the same everywhere; we try to make the most out of life, whatever hand we're dealt.

ES: The hand being quite different in Cleveland, compared to East Africa. Photography is one way to connect people in different situations, but are there things people around here could be doing to think more broadly about water conservation?

LWB: I'm no environmentalist, but we're having our own issues here in the Great Lakes. We have those issues with agricultural runoff causing the algae bloom last summer and impacting our water supply. When people look at Africa and think, "Oh, poor them," it's really not that. We have water issues here and we haven't taken the right steps to solve them. We just have to be careful about what we're putting in our water supply.

ES: Looking forward to checking out the photos. Any parting thoughts?

LWB: The point to get out of all of this is every time you go to the faucet and fill a glass and take a sip of water, that could have taken three hours somewhere else in the world.

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