"Just breathe," I comforted myself as I shuffled slowly through the dusty gravel. "One breath with each step," I repeated raggedly as 50 pounds of brackish water sloshed rhythmically against the sides of the muddy yellow jerrycan strapped to my back.
Sweat rolled down my hairline, dropped from my forehead and splashed in a shape like raindrops on the gray slate beneath me. To keep from slipping, I tried to follow exactly in the footsteps of the cracked plastic sandals in front of me.
A 14-year-old girl in a patched purple dress had already fallen. We struggled to get her upright again; she was pinned by the weight of the can on her back and our own burdens made it hard to lift her from the loose steep slope.
"Galatoma, galatoma — thank you, thank you," she muttered in the southern Ethiopian language of Oromifa.
"Many women break their legs walking down the crater for water," warned Faadi Jilo, a 30-year-old mother of three and 15-year veteran of this water walk. "Sometimes pregnant women fall and miscarry," she added.
On my way to Dillo, a rough, one-road town perched precariously on Ethiopia's southern border, about 30 miles from Kenya, I thought a lot about water. I had plenty of time to think: The drive from Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, took 15 hours.
More than 80 percent of Ethiopians live in the country's rural regions, where as few as 24 percent of the population enjoys safe, accessible drinking water.
Throughout southern Oromia, I saw armies of women and girls with heavy barrels lashed to their backs with homemade rope. They lined the roads in the early morning and appeared again as the heat of the day ebbed, falling in line with millions of women across the African continent seeking this most fundamental resource.
It is estimated that on an average day women in poor countries walk four miles and carry about 44 pounds of water back to their families. The World Health Organization reports that more than 40 billion work hours are lost each year in Africa to the long-distance gathering of drinking water, and Ethiopia is no exception.
No amount of studying or thinking about this continentwide walk could have prepared me for walking for water. Everyone warned me that it would be a challenge to keep up with this task that is the daily norm for so many. Ernest Waititu, the journalist I'm working with here, who spent much of his youth in Kenya fetching water from long-distance sources, told me with a broad smile: "You will not make it, Sarah."
His words were echoed by every curious onlooker that saw me buying a jerrycan (plastic drums originally containing industrial volumes of cooking oil). The group of girls and women I introduced myself to in Dillo's gray dawn met my request to follow them down into the crater and carry a load myself with open alarm.
"This is very difficult for us and we have practice," said Fadi as she and the other women prepared for the first of three daily walks. "For you, I don't know," she worried, shaking her head a few times before we headed out.
From Dillo's town center, the group of a dozen women, ranging in age from seven to 40 (the youngest girls armed with five and 10-liter jerrycans and the teenagers and adults with 20-25 liters), laughed and joked their way to the crater.
It is a small and indulgently symbolic act to try to put myself in their shoes for one morning. There is no way to compare an hour and a half of my discomfort to what they endure in their lifetime. I will never know what it's like to spend the majority of my waking hours trying to save myself, my family and the cows or crops that are our livelihood from dehydration. Nor will I experience the disappointment of my school closing for lack of water.
If I were literally putting myself in their shoes, the shoes I wore would have been cheap, broken plastic sandals instead of ergonomic walking shoes that cost almost 10 times Fadi's yearly income.
If I were putting myself in their shoes, I would have plans to drink the dirty water I carried, knowing that it kills 20-plus people in Dillo each year, instead of giving it away and running to the diminishing stores of overheated bottled water in the back of our car to slake my thirst.
Joining this search for water might have been an inadequate attempt at understanding this specific hardship that holds Ethiopia and so much of Africa back from development, but it seemed important to try.
No one I spoke to in Dillo had ever heard of climate change. What Fadi and the other residents of Dillo did know was that, while some regions of Ethiopia have been experiencing strong harvests, their rains had not fallen properly in years.
The women of Dillo I walked with that morning knew that last year's rainy season was cut from three months to one and a half and that their usual sources of water were no longer lasting through the long dry season. The children I walked with knew that their schools were closing for lack of water.
From the water's edge, the rim of the crater seemed impossibly far away.
I headed back, a big, sweaty, strangely dressed faranji (white foreigner) in a line of bemused Ethiopian women and girls.
Struggling up the hill, I thought about how ironic it is that a people whose entire lifestyle is defined by the limits of very scant resources may already be feeling the effects of the excesses of societies they will never see, people they will never meet. I thought about Fadi and her hope for a full season of rain. I thought of her two young daughters, who will soon be expected to make this walk at her side. Then I stopped thinking entirely because I felt like I was going to fall over from exhaustion. Neither the reports I'd read, nor the people I'd interviewed about water walking, had ever mentioned how brutally hard the physical act is.
Well, my colleague Waititu had: "Twenty-five liters is a lot of weight — you'll have to carry it on your back or on your head and it's incredibly hard, very demanding," he had warned. But I didn't really think about it — that is, until the ropes were rubbing silver dollar-sized blisters on my shoulders, and I was crawling uphill with six gallons of water beneath a rising sun.
At the halfway mark, his words — "Sarah, you won't make it" — began running circles in my conscience. The fact that I did make it was absolutely no testament to willpower, physical strength or determination.
It was entirely shame that propelled me slowly up out of that crater — the shame of thinking that I was able to give up, because I could, when the barely teenage girl whose small footsteps I was following in had no choice.
Also featured in Berkeley's International Affairs Journal and SGI Quarterly