Now what… I returned from my trip with Water 1st yesterday, glad to be home, hug my husband and take a walk to watch the sunset over Elliot Bay. Chris asks me, how was it? And I am at a loss for words to describe the experience. I tell a few funny stories, and describe some of the pictures he helps download from my camera. This just begins to unlock the relevance of my experience in Ethiopia.

I wake up Monday morning in my own bed, grateful that I have the MLK holiday to recover before going back to work. There is plenty to do to get ready for the week, so before I attempt to deal with e-mail I decide to work on a video for the Martin Luther King assembly at my school. I am viewing my archive of pictures from the Civil Rights Movement, and listening to NPR discuss the MLK holiday on the eve of the inauguration of Barack Obama as president. Then I open a file of images and see a 1949 photograph of children crowded onto a wooden bench in school, and suddenly I am reminded of the schools in Ilama Muja and Bishikiltu. I stop and stare at this photo, knowing I would find a similar image in the pictures I have just reviewed from my trip.

My mind is flooded with an amazing confluence of ideas. If I were a filmmaker, I could share this experience in a fast stream of images—you’ll need to bear with my words instead. The birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. is celebrated in January, and in his honor we remember the heroes and highlights of the American Civil Rights Movement. But the context that made his work successful has faded since then. SCLC, COFO, SNCC and NAACP are less familiar acronyms now, but these organizations taught small communities the organizational skills needed to design a better future. Skills like registering to vote and using Roberts Rules of Order, allowed people to see change as possible. Without being too grand, I witnessed the same grassroots of change in two African villages.

The families of Ilamu Muja and Bishikiltu are harnessed to the land, their lives shaped by the environment in ways we have forgotten in the first world. But as I listened to the community leaders give detailed reports on their new water projects, I was reminded of the meetings in church basements or schools of America long ago. Meetings in places like Montgomery or Lowndes County provided experience and prepared people to define their own needs and plans. I am struck by the similarity of community organizing of the village water committees and health promoters, as mentored by Water1st and their local partner, Water Action. The connection between clean water and a better future is not lost on them.

“We are at the beginning of a new world, and will protect our water project like we protect our eyes.” The Village Health Promoter from Bishikiltu spoke eloquently as he described how lives had improved since the village began to use clean water and pit latrines. The people and animals are healthier so children can attend school, and more work can be accomplished. Instead of relying on people from the outside world, they now have faith in their own community. One leader said to me, “The last time you were here we were crying, now we are laughing.” To witness this transformation is something I won’t forget.

But how did the 1949 photograph lead me here? The children sitting on school benches in Bishikiltu and Ilamu Muja are watching their community change, just like the children who grew up during the 1960’s. In these two Ethiopian villages, the adults seem newly focused on their future instead of mere survival. Children see their parents persist in improving the quality of life for their families. The leadership role of women in the community certainly provides girls with role models that didn’t exist before. 60 years ago, we said similar things about communities here in the U.S. I can’t help but think that we will see children nurtured in positive change from this work, and change will come at a pace we can’t anticipate.

And finally, tomorrow, the children in Ilamu Muja and Bishikiltu will know that Barack Obama is President of the United States. This is a change that the children from 1949 and 2009 can celebrate together. Africa and America will see each other in a new way. Sometimes, real life holds real promise.