River Voices: Elizabeth Mboutchom
When I moved back to Minnesota in 2019, I was filled with nostalgia from my childhood. Growing up a couple blocks from the Mississippi in St. Cloud, the river was a part of my daily life. For kids in my neighborhood, everything related to the river. The river helped us count time—One Mississippi, Two Mississippi—and engaged our competitive spirits by seeing who could spell the fastest–M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I. We also used the river’s width to practice holding our breath as we crossed its bridges. We went for walks along its shores and skipped rocks on its flowing waters as we watched people fish and canoe. This mighty river’s humble beginnings are a once-in-a-lifetime trip for many and a sense of pride for those who are lucky enough to live here. When I was six years old, my family took a trip to New Orleans where we watched the river pour into the Gulf. I couldn’t believe its size or its color. It was so much wider and browner than the river I knew at home!
Since that trip, life has taken me to many new places in the United States and around the world. All have amazed me, but it wasn’t until my Peace Corps service in Africa that I really began to appreciate water. During my service, I lived in a remote town in the mountains where views were spectacular.
Despite being surrounded by beautiful mountains with a river flowing through the valley, clean water was not accessible. There was one water pump for each neighborhood in this town. I used to stand in a long line waiting to fill two 10-liter buckets with murky water, which had to be filtered and boiled before I could drink it. The pumps frequently stopped working due to broken parts, a task that could not be dealt with locally. I felt a panic, like none I had known before or since, when the pump broke for extended periods of time and my stock of water began to run low. My neighbors and I pooled our funds to purchase a barrel of river water brought up the mountain on a truck, to be shared by four families and myself. There I experienced firsthand many of the problems that come with unclean water.
When I returned to the United States, I thought my water woes were behind me. I was back in a country where the water is clean and accessible, where people can swim and fish in rivers. But I was wrong. At the time, I was living in the nation’s capital where warning signs lined the river’s shorelines and water fountains were shut off in schools due to high levels of lead.
Moving back to central Minnesota and seeing people fishing and swimming in the river seems surreal. Although this is normal here, it’s no longer a reality in many places. The health of our water resources is essential for healthy communities. The two go hand-in-hand, with one dependent upon the other as people and the environment are forever intertwined. As demands on natural resources increase, cooperation to protect shared resources is imperative to maintaining the one resource life cannot exist without, water.