When John and Mary Coyne were invited by a friend to visit a charity project in Malawi 15 years ago, they didn’t know it would change the rest of their lives.
In 2005, the Coynes spent time in local villages over 10 days and saw firsthand the challenges that residents faced when it came to getting clean water; most of the water was obtained from boreholes, and the pumps that had been installed by other organisations had long been abandoned and fallen into disrepair.
“On our first visit there, I think that was the saddest thing, I found,” Mary Coyne said. “You come to this state-of-the-art pump, a fine looking one that whatever organisation or evangelists put it in, and it wouldn’t work. And nobody could remember when it worked — maybe four or five years, nobody knew.”
On the plane ride back to their home in Lucan, Ireland, John made a list of the people he thought could help him address the problems they had seen first hand. When the couple reunited with their five kids, they sat them down for a frank discussion.
“We’re going to spend your inheritance, we’re going to go to Malawi, and we’re going to do something about the water situation,” he told them.
From that idea was born Wells for Zoë: an organisation that connects local Malawians with the tools needed to access clean water permanently. It operates with a 100 per cent donation mode, meaning the Coynes have ensured all donations made to the charity go to the work in Malawi, and pay for all administrative and travel expenses themselves.
A better source for water
The Coynes found an inexpensive but efficient water pump made by Richard Cansdale in England. For €100, the pump could be provided to a village and ensure clean water for up to 500 people. Cansdale’s daughter Zoë, who had been killed in a motorcycle accident, was the source of inspiration for the charity’s name.
Upon returning to Malawi, the Coynes worked with local villages to set up pumps. They used local labour and resources, and worked with designated “pump managers” who would ensure the pumps wouldn’t see the same fate as the old ones.
With new wells dug and new pumps in place, the Coynes established a system to keep them in good working order: on a monthly basis, Wells for Zoë places calls to the pump managers at each of the sites and ask if the pump is working. If it’s not, they’ll send one of their team members — local Malawians — to go and fix it.
“For a chunk of time, we were relying on the fact that people would ring us and tell us if their pump wasn’t working,” said Éamonn Coyne, John and Mary’s son who now runs much of the day-to-day operation of the charity. “Of course people forget who to ring, and don’t know who put the pump in in the first place, they forget about it. It actually lives up to Dad’s ideal — if you can put it in and walk away, then it works.”
Since those first pumps were installed 15 years ago, Wells for Zoë has updated them, including engraving the contact information for the charity on the pumps so they can be contacted if support is required. The GPS locations of pumps are also recorded, and used to locate on satellite maps.
As the Coynes started establishing these water pumps and spoke to the women of these communities, other opportunities that Wells for Zoë could support arose.
“Once people got water, they said ‘well, we’d love to have preschools’, and I was a teacher in my first life, and it was easy to do something there as well, just to help them to get organised,” Mary said. “It all happened. They made it happen.”
Opportunities for education
With the preschools built and teachers recruited and trained, the discrepancy between the education that boys and girls were receiving was brought to the attention of John and Mary. Families would generally send their sons to school, but daughters often saw high drop-out rates because families were unable to afford secondary school fees.
It inspired the start of the Girl Child Student program, through which secondary school fees would be paid for girls ranging in age from 13 to 22. To be enrolled, the girls must pass their secondary school entrance exams and agree not to get married or pregnant for the duration of their participation in the four-year program.
Since the program launched seven years ago, more than 250 girls annually have had their fees paid for by the organisation, and some have gone on to university with the charity’s assistance, too. Women have entered training to become nurses, teachers, lawyers and scientists thanks to the support of donors for Wells for Zoë.
In addition to the school fees, Wells for Zoë buses the girls in for additional classes on Saturdays at their facility outside Northern Malawi’s capital of Mzuzu. At the facility, the girls have access to showers, toilets and a hot meal, as well as counselling services by a qualified teacher/counsellor, and and talks from and access to the local police Victims Support Unit.
“If we have any girls with any issues, they’re free to walk in, push the door in, and talk to those people,” John said. “We support the police that follow up on any cases. It makes me cry sometimes, but it’s a lovely thing to have. And it works — it works extremely well.”
When schools closed in March due to the pandemic, a new problem was identified that had been cropping up in one of the local villages.
“A member of our staff had to send help to another area where, because girls were out of school at the moment, there was a huge amount of girls pregnant, “ said Mary. “Young girls, even in primary school. So we had to intervene there very quickly, but we have the people on the ground, and we were able to put money into it, and send help to put a plan in place.”
As the Coynes’ work in Malawi has continued with locals through the years, they’ve had more proposals brought to them through self-help clusters, which sees villages develop action plans and come to the charity with requests for funding. Through these proposals, Wells for Zoë has developed different programs to meet those needs, including teaching local women how to make rocket stoves.
The latest project, and the passion of the Coynes’ son Éamonn, is the planting of indigenous trees to rebuild the forests around villages and provide easier access to fuel for cooking.
When Wells for Zoë first got requests for trees, they followed the national forestry service’s guidelines and provided pine and blue gum trees. While both are suitable for roofing materials and can prove a profitable commodity, they were an invasive species, and didn’t necessarily meet all the needs of the residents.
“People from other countries came in and grew big forests [of pine and blue gum trees]...Around the world, people tend to go for planting what they know,” Éamonn said. “When we went to Dad and said ‘we don’t want to plant pines and blue gums anymore, they’re not very good for where we’re working...we’re going to have to research and find out what trees.’ Dad immediately said ‘yep, that’s fair enough. You talk to the people and ask the people and see what they would like, what they have.’”
Working with local and international botany experts, the Wells for Zoë team are researching indigenous tree species at their facility outside Mzuzu, through breeding and grafting programs. Four months into the new indigenous trees program, the team has come up with lots of different varieties that have been suggested by Malawi residents.
A lasting legacy
With the global pandemic continuing to limit travel, the Coynes aren’t able to make their usual four or five trips to Malawi this year, much to their disappointment. However work continues in the region, and continues to be celebrated in the name of the girl who inspired the organization’s early days.
“[In Malawi], they sing about Zoë, Zoë Zoë Zoë,” Éamonn said. “They don’t sing about Wells for Zoë, they sing about Zoë at all of the [events]. They call it just Zoë, ‘when is Zoë coming?’ It’s like the ultimate accolade or remembrance for someone.”
This article was written in connection Verizon Media’s global volunteering day, The Great Build.