Ideas. Stories. Community.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A Denver college student brings water and aid to her home village in Tanzania

Angel Mollel with Ormelili villagers and 1Love teammates.
courtesy of Angel Mollel/1Love
Angel Mollel with Ormelili villagers and 1Love teammates.

This story is part of the Tribal Water Media Fellowship Program, a collaboration between KSUT Public Radio, Fort Lewis College, and Rocky Mountain PBS. The project gets support from the Walton Family Foundation. Independent producer Adam Burke provided story editing.

Growing up in the village of Ormelili, in Tanzania, Angel Mollel was no stranger to hard work. For hours each day, that work involved carrying water.

“It's crazy the amount we did in a single day,” Mollel recalled. “Waking up, going to fetch water, coming back, doing laundry. Next thing you know, the water is out. You have to go back again and make a second round. By the time you go to sleep at 10 pm or 11 pm, you're dead.”

In rural villages across Tanzania, women walk for miles carrying 5-gallon water containers on their heads.

Woman in Ormelili, Tanzania, carries bucket filled with water.
courtesy Angel Mollel/1Love
Woman in Ormelili, Tanzania, carries bucket filled with water.

“It's such a lot of work for the women,” Mollel said. “I remember when I first got to the States, people would notice my neck was just so strong, and I’m like: ‘That's from carrying water.’”

Mollel was adopted by an American when she was 13 years old, and it was only after she’d spent some years in Denver that she realized how a small amount of civil engineering could make a huge difference in the lives of Ormelili’s women and girls.

It took her a few years, but when she was still a teenager, Mollel launched 1Love, a non-profit foundation based in Denver. The non-profit allowed her to scale up her efforts in raising money, collecting material donations, and funding infrastructure and education projects in Ormellili.

Maasai Culture Meets Civil Engineering

The Maasai are a nomadic people whose culture centers around cattle herding. Their history bears similarities to that of Native American tribes in North America. The Maasai have endured forced removal from traditional lands and broken treaty agreements.

But even in the face of modern pressures, Maasai culture is prominent in Ormellili village life. Villagers scrape charcoal from the ceilings and walls of mud cooking huts and use it as medicine. Women and men wear colorful fabrics wrapped and tied around their hips and shoulders and elaborate, beaded jewelry that shake when they dance.

A large percentage of the work needed to keep the village running falls to women. Village men plan and administer projects, and boys are tasked with looking after herds. Women and girls are often in charge of cooking, washing clothes and dishes, childcare, creating handcrafted goods to sell, butchering and preparing meat, and especially collecting water.

As a girl, during summer visits to Ormelili, Mollel realized that prioritizing education for girls would be a big step forward for villagers. She could also see women in Ormelili could be more productive if they had time to run businesses.

“It’s not how it used to be when I was young,” she said.

Over the last five years, her non-profit has funded education, economic development, and small-scale energy projects. But she also focussed on water access, raising funds to dig wells for agriculture, and instal the basic plumbing systems needed to bring clean drinking water to homes.

Well and water tank developed in Ormellili, Tanzania, with funding assistance from Angel Mollel's organization
courtesy of Angel Mollel/1Love
Well and water tank developed in Ormellili, Tanzania, with funding assistance from Angel Mollel's organization

Angel says these projects, especially water access, have been a game changer for women.

“I’ve had people in the village come up to me personally and thank me,” she said. “I’ve even had a lot of men come up to me and say you’re an inspiration to our children because they see you doing these projects.”

A Chance to Give Back

It was a chance encounter with an American aid worker that profoundly changed the trajectory of Angel Mollel’s life.

Mollel was in elementary school when she first met Tony Materoli, who was working as a volunteer for the small rural school she attended. Materoli noticed her energy and intelligence but also her poor health.

“We just had the best time.” Mollel said. “I was just looking forward to going to school because that meant I got to see Tony, and he quickly became my best friend.”

Materoli grew close to Mollel’s family. He helped her get medical and dental treatment and eventually suggested to Mollel’s parents that he could adopt her and bring her to Colorado, where she would have access to a better education.

Angel went to public school in Denver, but returned to Tanzania every summer. Before long, she was bringing useful donations with her, like used laptops.

Then, she started raising money in small donations.

“It kind of became overwhelming,” Mollel recalled. “I was trying to help as much as possible. But I was living with a single dad, and it just became a lot for the both of us.”

It was Mollel’s friends and father who helped Angel realize that starting a non-profit would allow her to make a bigger impact.

“At first, I was like, ‘I'm in high school,’” Mollel said. “‘I’m not about to start a nonprofit.’”

But soon she launched 1Love, running it while she was still in high school and continuing the work through college. Today, Mollel moves between the two worlds she knows well–Tanzanian village life and potential donors living in Denver.

“I've lived in the US for half of my life and in Tanzania for half of my life,” she said. “So I kind of know what the people are thinking in Tanzania and what my friends from the US (are thinking).”

Women in Ormellili, Tanzania, jumping as part of a family celebration.
courtesy of Angel Mollel/1Love
Women in Ormellili, Tanzania, jumping as part of a family celebration.

Mollel admits that bringing new resources to the village has been disruptive to traditional community relationships. Women who don’t carry water every day no longer have that time to chat with each other away from the village. But women have new options and new opportunities.

Later this month, Angel Mollel will graduate from the University of Colorado at Boulder. At 22 years old, she’s figured out how to connect communities separated by thousands of miles. She’s working on water access now, but she’s dreaming about other projects too.

“I want to build a school," she said. "Devoted to really helping the Maasai people. Any child can attend, (but) I want one dedicated to the Maasai people.”

In June, her organization is hosting a pickleball tournament in Denver. It's an effort to raise $25,000 toward the new school.

August Mrakuzic’s reporting comes from the Tribal Water Media Fellowship Program–a collaboration between Fort Lewis College, KSUT, and Rocky Mountain PBS, with support from the Walton Family Foundation. Independent producer Adam Burke provided mentoring and editing for this feature story.

Copyright 2024 Four Corners Public Radio

August J Mrakuzic