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Bitten by the water bug

Bill and Diane Savage better lives by building wells
by: Cliff Newell, 
Bill and Diane Savage examine a bottle of brown, dirty drinking water that people in Zambia, Africa are forced to drink. But thanks largely to the Savages, that situation is changing.

It took Bill Savage a walk of just three-quarters of a mile to find out about the water crisis that faces the people of Zambia in Africa.

Accompanied by a native woman carrying a heavy pot on her head, Savage trekked from her village to a water source.

To call it a 'water source' is truly stretching the definition. 'Mud hole' is more accurate.

'She scooped up a handful of water and it was dark brown,' Savage said. 'I asked her, 'Do you boil this?' She said, 'We don't have enough fuel.'

'It hit me like a 2 by 4. I thought about giving water like this to my grandchildren.'

Since then, Bill Savage and his wife Diane have been 'bitten by the water bug.' They are devoting their lives to raising money to build boreholes in Zambia. The Lake Oswego couple calls their operation Water for Africa, and they don't think they could be spending their retirement years any better.

'Water is the first step out of poverty,' Bill said. 'If you don't have safe water the other things, like education and healthcare, won't happen.

'Water is the foundation. I can't think of any place to give money that would have more impact.'

Solving the water problems in Zambia was not on the horizon for the Savages when they first retired. Originally they planned to join the Peace Corps and were all accepted, set and ready to go.

Then Bill came down with asthma and their new life came to a complete halt.

'It was very disappointing,' Bill said. 'We like to travel and engage with local people.'

Then through their church, Lake Grove Presbyterian, they found out about the dire water shortage in Zambia. Bill had his breakthrough moment with the Zambian woman at the mud hole, and the Savages have been going strong ever since.

'It was amazing to us how these different detours have come together,' Bill said. 'I believe there's a plan. We were destined to work on water in Africa.'

But the Savages didn't go into this project as expert fundraisers, and actually, they still are not.

'I thought, 'Raising money? No way!'' Bill said. 'But we got so passionate about this and we started looking for opportunities and just talking to people.

'We aren't experts. In some ways we don't know what we're doing. But this touches people.'

Sometimes opportunity looks for the Savages. Nancy Hascall, a renowned handbell musical artist and a member of their church, came to them wanting to ring her bells in a good cause.

Diane said, 'Nancy asked, 'I wonder if you could use my bellringing talent?' I thought what if we have a traveling concert?'

For Hascall it has been 'have bells, will travel,' and the Savages have put together a remarkably effective program to go with the fine music.

'We show a video that comes in four parts,' Diane said. 'The first shows the abundance of water in the Northwest. Then we show the bleakness of Zambia with no water. Then we show the difference that water can make in the Zambian people's lives.

'Then we answer the question, 'What can you do?' We don't charge for the concert. We take a free will offering.'

A few props help get the message. One is a bottle of incredibly dirty Zambian water. Another is an amazingly heavy water bucket that Zambian women carry on their heads, often walking 7 miles a day to obtain water that will help them barely survive.

What the Savages are doing is working. Along with other similarly motivated people on the World Vision water project, they have helped raise $1 million, which has gone to build wells that are transforming the lives of Zambian people.

Diane was actually there in Zambia when the first borewell was drilled, and the story has the aspect of a miracle. Or, as Diane prefers, 'a strong spiritual aspect.'

'There were the foremen, the villagers and our group of six. We said a prayer, then the Romanian crew started drilling. They were blowing dirt at 40 meters, then 45 meters. The villagers were standing around and they were so hopeful, because they knew this borehole could change their lives.

'But when the drill hit 50 feet and still no water, our hearts started dropping. Fifty feet was the farthest they had contracted to drill.

'But the foreman said, 'I watched you pray. I'll keep going.''

Diane and her group then left over the rugged, roadless jungle terrain for another village. It wasn't too long before a driver tore into the village, ran up to Diane and started tugging on her sleeve.

'Mrs. Savage! Come quick,' he said.

The crew had hit water.

'The villagers were jubilant,' Diane said. 'They were jumping, dancing and shaking my hand. They were so grateful.

'One lady gave me a little worn handkerchief and it was full of thistleheads she had collected. Thistle-heads are a weed they eat because they don't have enough money to buy real food. But they can soak them up enough to eat them. She wanted to give me her thistleheads.

'It was an incredible experience. I'll never forget it.'

It would probably take an encyclopedia to record the experiences of the people that the Savages have helped bring water.

'When the project is complete there will be 117 wells covering an area of 65,000 people,' Diane said. 'Then they will add six more areas. Then they will go to another country. It's mushrooming, and it's so exciting.'

'This area has been the germ,' Bill said, and holding up the bottle of dirty, brown water, he added, 'It blows me away that people won't be having to drink water like this.'

Local people are welcome to contact Bill and Diane Savage to become part of Water for Africa.

The Savages are especially interested in finding future venues for their concert and program featuring Hascall. To inquire about having a concert, call the Savages at 503-635-5228 or e-mail them at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .