Albany to Africa: McGrath at the Washington Park merry-go-round.
Gift of Laughter and Water
water crisis in sub-Saharan Africa is a dire problem, but
the simple, innovative PlayPump system is helping—and, for
one African community, that help is coming from Albany
Basa Primary School in northern South Africa, boys and girls
are running, giggling, spinning a simple merry-go-round—their
only piece of playground equipment. With each spin, they are
supplying the town of Diepsloot with fresh, clean water. With
each spin, they are changing their own lives.
The merry-go-round is part of a PlayPump water system. As
the merry-go-round turns, it pumps water from a deep well
into a 660-gallon storage tank, providing enough water for
2,500 people. Before there was a PlayPump at Basa Primary
School, the community water sources frequently ran dry, and
were, more often than not, contaminated. Children at the school
used pit latrines not far from their drinking water supply.
Girls often had to abandon their studies, preoccupied with
the business of collecting water.
Today, they have a clean, reliable water source, and the motivation
to go to school. The PlayPump has even supplied enough water
to mix the cement needed to build some classrooms, and to
start a large-scale garden, which provides a healthy lunch
program for the students. It has inspired the children to
dream about the possibilities in their future. “We cannot
live without water,” says 12-year-old Basa student Palesa
Mkhabela, quoted in a report on the Diepsloot project. “When
I become a doctor and can help other people I will always
remember that health starts with clean water.” Her classmate,
Itumeleng Mpane, now aspires to be a scientist: “When I grow
up,” she says, “I also want to invent clever things to help
my community.” Today, the children at the school are healthy,
educated, and aware that they can change their world for the
The PlayPump at Basa is one of more than 900 PlayPumps that
have been installed to date in sub-Saharan Africa. PlayPumps
International, the nonprofit organization that oversees the
funding and installation of PlayPump water systems, has stated
a goal of installing 4,000 PlayPumps by 2010. If that goal
is met, the pumps will be providing a free, clean, and sustainable
drinking supply to at least 10 million people.
Toni McGrath, a longtime resident of the Albany area, is doing
her best to fund one of those PlayPumps with support from
the Capital Region. The PlayPumps mission hit a personal chord
for McGrath, whose daughter Emily recently spent 10 weeks
in Africa working on a research project. “She talked about
the kids and how wonderful the children in Africa were, because
they were really like kids,” Recalls McGrath. “They weren’t
into mechanics, into electronics; they were just kids out
playing.” A snapshot graces the fridge in McGrath’s cozy Delmar
home: Emily, disheveled and glowing, reaching her hand toward
the roughly bristled haunch of an African elephant. McGrath
offers me a drink; the typically offhand response, “I’ll just
have a glass of water,” seems suddenly callous.
One restless night in February was all it took to hook McGrath
on the PlayPumps mission. “I couldn’t sleep,” says McGrath,
who has just apologized for the dim light—they’ve switched
to energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs, which take some time
to warm up. “I was on the couch in the living room, flipping
through channels, and Frontline was on. It was an explanation
of this invention,” she recalls. “What impressed me was how
happy the kids were. It made me think of what Emily had said.
These were kids who, all of a sudden, had a piece of playground
equipment. They were running around, just freaking out at
how much fun it was. They didn’t have a real concept of how
much they were giving to their community. What caught me was
that this was such a great piece of technology. It requires
no power. It requires very little maintenance. It doesn’t
create emissions. It’s completely off-grid. It’s in the center
of the community, and it provides fun for kids. Kids play,
and water pumps.”
start: children in sub-Saharan Africa at a working PlayPump
PHOTO: Frimmel Smith
stayed up all night that night, watching and rewatching the
Frontline report, reading every page of the PlayPumps
International Web site, printing off facts that grabbed her.
When her husband Dick finally awoke, she bombarded him with
her newfound cause. “I said, ‘Oh, I found this great thing
on TV last night. I’m gonna buy one. It’s $14,000,’ ” McGrath
recalls, chuckling at her idealistic enthusiasm. “And I actually
thought I was going to buy one! Then I got kinda serious and
thought, well actually, I’m not gonna buy it, so, OK,
what’s next?” Since that night, McGrath has been determined
to raise $14,000, enough money to install one PlayPump in
one village in Africa. Enough money to provide clean water
to 2,500 people.
I learned more about it,” says McGrath, “I started realizing
how truly important it was to the communities.” According
to a report by the World Health Organization and the United
Nations Children’s Fund, women and girls shoulder the bulk
of the responsibility for water gathering, often hauling 5
gallons, or 40 pounds, of water, an average of 6 miles a day.
Women spend much of the day away from their homes and families.
Girls, responsible for making exhausting water trips three
times a day, frequently drop out of school, unable to keep
up with their studies. And that water, borne home with such
effort, often carries something of its own: disease.
The statistics on the water crisis are overwhelming. According
to the World Water Council, 1.1 billion people, 18 percent
of the world’s population, lack access to clean drinking water.
“Twenty-five percent of the world’s population is ill from
waterborne disease,” says McGrath, her twinkling enthusiasm
for PlayPumps dimmed, for the moment, by the enormity of the
problem. “Fifty percent of people in developing countries.
It’s mind-boggling.” Unsafe water is now the single largest
cause of illness worldwide. Almost 2 million children die
each year due to the lack of clean water and inadequate sanitation—one
child every 15 seconds—making water-related disease the second
largest cause of child mortality in the world, according to
the United Nations Human Development Report. “And it’s not
huge diseases like AIDS,” McGrath emphasizes. “It’s just diarrhea.
It’s just dysentery, things that are easily corrected. It
makes a huge difference if they just have clean water.”
That is the difference that PlayPumps International is striving
to make, and McGrath along with them—one well, one merry-go-round
at a time. With her campaign, which she’s dubbed Albany Friends
for PlayPumps, she tries to focus on the solution. “To this
day,” she says, “it’s still the happiness for me. It’s such
a dire problem. It’s such a difficult problem, and yet this
particular solution is all about happiness and fun, and really
McGrath’s husband Dick bustles in from work with a gentle
whirlwind of support, pride, and enthusiasm, playfully tousling
the shaggy fur of Chewie, their floppy family dog. “Can you
believe what Toni’s done?” he asks. “It’s been magical. It’s
been really wonderful. And we’ll raise our 14, too,” adding,
“It’s such a stupidly simple idea. It’s such a cool idea.”
The PlayPump system functions on very basic mechanical principals.
As children spin on the PlayPump merry-go-round, the turning
wheel drives a pump in an underground well. The pump forces
water into an enclosed 660-gallon holding tank, 20 feet above
the ground. Opening a simple nearby tap enables people in
the community to draw water from the tank as needed. The pump,
which requires no electricity, is capable of drawing almost
400 gallons of water per hour from a depth of 130 feet, and
is effective to 330 feet. The delivery rate and ease of use
of a PlayPump system far outmatch the hand pumps often found
in such communities. And hand pumps function only to around
30 feet; shallow wells are frequently contaminated and can
easily run dry. The deep wells allowed by the PlayPump system
ensure a constant supply of pure water.
Trevor Field, the man behind today’s PlayPumps system, stumbled
upon the basic concept in 1989 at an agricultural fair outside
Johannesburg, South Africa. A local engineer and borehole
driller had devised a pump driven by a children’s merry-go-round
to amuse the rural kids who often gathered to watch him drill.
The pump drew water from a shallow well and into the field
nearby. Field recognized the potential of the simple technology,
and collaborated with his longtime business colleagues, Paolo
Ristic and Sarel Nienber, to create a more effective model.
The trio licensed the idea from its inventor and started Roundabout
Outdoor, a company dedicated to manufacturing, installing
and maintaining the PlayPump system at no cost to the communities.
They modified the original pump to function with a deep borehole,
and reworked the system so the merry-go-round would pump water
when spun in both directions. They added the sealed storage
tank and water tap, and devised an overflow that directed
unused water back into the well from the tank, because kids
often play on the merry-go-round so much that they pump more
water than the tank can hold. Finally, they designed the holding
tank with four square sides—each side to be used as a billboard.
Two sides of every PlayPump tank offer public-service messages,
most often about HIV awareness and sanitation. The other two
sides are paid advertising that fund the maintenance of the
system. All the installations and upkeep are done by a team
of local men who are responsible for all the PlayPumps in
a specific geographic area. These men are guaranteed employment
for 10 years; their salaries are paid in full by the PlayPumps’
billboards. The idea is comprehensive and achievable.
By 1997, Roundabout International had installed 20 PlayPumps
in South Africa, a slow-going process, personally overseen
by Field and his wife. Then the organization won the World
Bank Development Marketplace Award, which provides grants
to fund creative, small-scale development projects. The award
immediately funded the construction of 40 new pumps, and the
publicity drew substantial donations, including a grant from
the Kaiser Family Foundation for an additional 60 pumps. PlayPumps
International was founded, and began building worldwide partnerships,
providing global education about the water crisis and what
can be done to help. To date, Roundabout Outdoor has constructed
over 900 PlayPumps throughout South Africa, Mozambique, Swaziland
and Zambia. They hope, over the next three years, to expand
their reach into Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Tanzania
and Uganda, building 4,000 Play Pumps in total. The organization
strives to keep their operating costs as low as possible.
According to PlayPumps International, 94 percent of every
$14,000 goes to the actual manufacture and installation of
While her commitment to PlayPumps hasn’t waivered, raising
the money to fund a single pump has been an uphill climb for
McGrath. “It’s been a real learning curve,” she says. “I’ve
never raised money before.” She began with an e-mail campaign,
but quickly realized that most people don’t open mass mailings,
even for a good cause. “It felt pretty bleak,” she recalls.
But one of the people she e-mailed was her niece, Gwen Farrell,
who offered McGrath much-needed support; Farrell built the
initial Albany Friends for PlayPumps Web site, and helped
McGrath put her fund-raising campaign in perspective. “She
came up with the idea that you don’t need to raise $14,000,”
says McGrath, brightening, “you just need to come up with
30 people who are willing to raise $500.” And that’s what
they set out to do.
play, water pumps: kids, and the pump, in action.
PHOTO: PlayPumps International
neighbor, Bob Barbato, offered to run in the New York marathon
on behalf of Albany Friends for PlayPumps. Between Barbato’s
marathon Web site, and a letter-writing campaign by McGrath
promoting his effort, Barbato’s 26-mile run raised more than
$4,000 toward the final goal. Family friends Bernie and Maggie
Bourdeau threw a fund-raising wine-and-cheese party. They
invited 55 people, and charged $25 a person or $40 a couple
for the evening. “All of the people who responded sent checks,”
says McGrath. “They had their wine-and-cheese party, and they
raised over $1,100 dollars.” Dick McGrath, who owns Atsco
Products in Albany, spoke with a Nigerian-born business associate
who vividly remembers the hard work of getting water as a
child. He was so impressed by the PlayPump system, he not
only donated money to Albany Friends for PlayPumps, but told
McGrath he hopes to fund a pump of his own. “It makes you
realize how nice, how good, your friends are, your family,”
Dick says, beaming, his feet buried under a tumble of dog.
“It’s a pass-it-on thing,”
There have been small steps as well. Selling tickets to the
Great Escape and coupons for Bon-Ton’s Community Day raised
more than $500. Even reconsidering expenses at home has made
a difference: Instead of paying someone to mow the lawn, Dick
mows the lawn himself and donates the $25 to PlayPumps each
month. To date, Albany Friends for PlayPumps has raised $8,496,
all of which goes to directly to PlayPumps International.
Albany Friends For PlayPumps will not be assigned a specific
village in Africa until they are near the end of their fund-raising
goal. Still, according to McGrath, the simplicity of the idea
and the direct impact of each contribution motivate her to
keep pushing for more. “It is such a basic idea,” she says.
“It isn’t overwhelming, like attacking the problem of world
hunger or AIDS or even clean water. It’s buy a pump. Install
it in a village. Make kids happy, and provide the entire area
with potable water. . . . $14,000 doesn’t seem like a big
price for such a great benefit.” Based on PlayPump International’s
estimates that each pump will provide enough water for 2,500
people for 10 years, the cost of supplying clean, fresh water
to one person for one year is only 56 cents.
McGrath’s next big step is a collaboration with Mohonasen
High School. The student council is organizing a school-wide
fundraiser, and McGrath is working with the teachers and administration
to develop an interdisciplinary education program based around
the PlayPumps concept. “We’re going to talk about sustainability,
and about solving problems by thinking outside the box,” says
McGrath, who is particularly excited about involving kids
in the PlayPumps mission, since kids are at the heart of the
solution. As Field puts it, “We are using the power of children
as a source of pure, renewable energy.”
all comes back to sustainability, really,” says McGrath, “and
that’s where the world is heading.” She grins as she delivers
one of the taglines of her cause: “The only emissions from
the operation of a PlayPump are laughter.”
amazing to me,” says Dick. “It’s an environmental issue. It’s
a women’s issue. It’s a poverty issue. It’s an energy issue.
It’s a global-warming issue. I mean—it’s everything,” he adds,
echoing an underlying awareness that clearly permeates their
really such a simple thing,” says McGrath, “It’s a simple
thing, and it’s happy kids.”
you’re interested in donating to Albany Friends for PlayPumps,
or have fund-raising ideas to share, you can visit their Web
site at www.firstgiving.com, or send checks payable to PlayPumps
international to Albany Friends for PlayPumps, P.O. Box 414,
Slingerlands, NY 12159.