In Canada, she’s famous for being a Trudeau. In Mali, she’s simply a mother, helping people whose kids are dying from unclean water.
When Margaret Trudeau began the long journey to Mali last month, she flew out of the airport named after her former husband, prime minister Pierre Trudeau.
At home, it is hard to escape the name — “I used to be Pierre’s wife and now I am Justin’s mom” — and the attention it brings, both good and bad.
But all that is far from this reddirt village in rural Mali. Under the shade of a tree in a village where children are sick and dying from unclean water, she is simply Margaret, a mother who can relate to their grief.
As the honorary vice- president of WaterAid Canada ( formerly WaterCan), she is here to draw attention to the desperate need for clean water and sanitation.
And though her last name may mean little to rural villagers, she knows it is an asset for WaterAid and can help draw attention to the cause back home in Canada.
“You have got to give. There is no other reason to be on the planet,” she says. “You are given a big name and a lot of attention and the only way to justify being on the planet is to be someone who makes a difference.”
Now 66, Trudeau has piercing blue eyes and a ready smile. She manages to pull off an air of casual glamour, even in the midday West African heat in a dusty rural village.
At a time when she could be devoting herself to her seven grandchildren and taking life more slowly, Trudeau has chosen to come to one of the poorest countries in the world, a country destabilized by jihadist- fuelled violence in the north and on the edge of the West African Ebola crisis.
Trudeau says her travel through Africa with WaterAid has made her keenly aware of how fortunate Canadians are.
“It is a huge reminder of my own blessing of being born Canadian, of being in a life where I have not had my children die in my arms from water, because we have no other choice.”
The issue first struck her when she was still married to Pierre Trudeau and busy with a young family. At a conference she was attending, British economist Barbara Ward held up a glass of water with feces in it.
“Would you feed this to your children?” Ward had asked. “Around the world, many women have no choice.”
That image stayed with her.
Years later, when she was no longer a prime minister’s wife and was raising a family in Ottawa with her second husband, real estate developer Fried Kemper, Trudeau began volunteering for Ottawa- based WaterCan.
Her first trip with the agency, to Uganda in 1997, was eyeopening. Not only did she see the problems caused by lack of access to clean water and sanitation, but the rugged trip gave her a new perspective on her own life.
“It felt right from the very beginning,” she says.
The following year, everything changed.
Her son Michel, the youngest of her three boys with Pierre Trudeau, died in an avalanche while backcountry skiing in British Columbia at the age of 23. His death sent her into a downward spiral.
“I could hardly dress myself,” she says of that time.
She began to emerge from the darkness after checking herself into the Royal Ottawa Hospital in 2001 where bipolar disorder was diagnosed, something she now speaks about publicly and wrote about in a 2010 book Changing My Mind. WaterCan also played a key role in her recovery.
“I couldn’t have got through the grief without WaterCan,” she says. “They eased my pain enormously, because I just wanted to hide and never go out again.”
In 2000, she took a second trip to Uganda, this time to visit a well named in honour of Michel.
That trip sealed her connection to Africa.
“Because I had lost Michel to water and because I had suffered the way the mothers ( in Africa) suffered, I felt a tremendous compassion for them,” she says.
In Mali, she travels by convoy down red dirt roads to reach villages where residents tell stories of hardship and hope. She spends her 66th birthday in a gritty Bamako neighbourhood.
At the end of one rural road, Trudeau and other representatives of WaterAid are greeted with dancing and drumming villagers in Fabo ugoula, home to 400 people, scattered donkeys, goats, chickens, cattle — and several dry or unclean wells.
The exuberant greeting belies a mood of desperation.
There are many causes of hardships and poor health in small, remote villages like this one, but water is high on the list.
The United Nations estimates that 3.5 million people die every year as a result of inadequate water supply, sanitation and hygiene. One person in nine around the world lacks access to good drinking water and one in three lacks proper sanitation.
In Mali, it’s even worse: One out of four has no access to clean water and just 22 per cent of the country’s population has access to sanitation facilities.
In Fabougoula, where WaterAid and its Malian partners plan to drill a new well, Trudeau tells them she wants to see their suffering end.
“We are a small group, but I want you to know that there are many behind us who want to help you and who understand that water is the issue that causes you suffering,” Trudeau says.
At a time when Canada and other western countries have made reducing maternal and early child death a development
You have got to give. There is no other reason to be on the planet.
MARGARET TRUDEAU WATERAID CANADA
priority, water is something that can’t be ignored. It is why WaterAid Canada is pushing the Canadian government to include more money for clean water.
“There is a child dying every single minute of some waterborne disease,” says Orlaith McCaul, vice- president development for WaterAid Canada.
It is not just rural Malians who lack access to clean water and sanitation. In recent years, the country has built nearly 2,000 community health clinics where women give birth and residents are treated for a variety of illness, including ever- present malaria.
The clinics represent an effort to reduce maternal and newborn death rates, among other things. But 90 per cent of those clinics — including in Bamako, a city of 2.5 million people — have no water.
And, water charities have a history of failure in Africa.
WaterAid’s approach includes community management and sustainability along with education. Residents also pay a token amount for water and sanitation use, which helps to maintain the systems.
In Meni Kassara, villagers are proud to display their sparkling water pumps and new latrines built by WaterAid and its Malian partners.
Before the wells were installed, women would get up at 2 a. m. to collect water from a well far from the village. They went during the night to make sure there was enough water for them, risking dangers along the way, including sexual violence.
“I have seen women broken down,” says Trudeau. “I have been told the water is sometimes so filthy they have no choice but to drink the same water the animals are drinking and standing in and defecating in.”
At Fabougoula, Coulibaly Sounaba thinks about the future. Her dreams for her remaining children and her village are simple: a market garden and healthy children who can attend school. “Water is life,” she says. Trudeau says she is more determined than ever to bring the message to Canadians.
She has seen the benefits clean water brings. That is one reason for her long involvement with WaterAid Canada. But that is not the only reason.
“I can’t even begin to tell you what I get out of it.”