Joyce Tannian ’00, the executive director and co-founder of Water Is Life Kenya, tells the story of a young Maasai woman named Dorcas. Dorcas married as a teenager and traveled far from her village to her husband’s home, where she took on the tasks of a typical housewife. This included a six-hour round trip across the border to Tanzania to fetch water, an arduous and sometimes dangerous trek.

Tannian says many women and girls in Maasai villages walk daily to wells miles away from their homes in the drought-prone equatorial land. Mothers with young children often kept their eldest daughters home from school to care for siblings while they traveled. Education took a deep back seat to retrieving water for villagers and cattle, their main livelihood.

Before her work in Kenya, Tannian had embarked on a very different career. “Unlike these young Maasai women, as a college student in the United States I had the privilege to develop my talents, and could do the things I love so much, which was to sing professionally,” says Tannian.

Tannian found the support for her dream—to be a classically trained singer—at the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College. Although she says several professors made an impact, Professor Emerita and Kennedy Center honoree Tania León , made the most profound impression. “She challenged us, wanted us to improvise and give our own interpretations of the music, not be lazy and just sing what was on the page,” says Tannian. “She was a force of nature, an inspiration.”

All of that seemed far away for the Delaware native when she moved to Kenya in 2006, after a trip there made her fall in love with the country. She left a successful job as an executive assistant for licensing at HBO. She even paused her beloved work as a freelance opera and choral singer to fly back to Kenya to teach through a charity there. When Tannian surveyed the country’s parched landscape, she wondered how the Maasai survived the frequent droughts. No water meant none for livestock, the primary economy of the region. How could she help? The answer was clean water, closer to home, from deep-water wells less likely to dry up.

Joyce Tannian ’00, third from right with Water for Life Kenya cofounder Joseph Larasha, at right

Joyce Tannian ’00, third from right, with Water for Life Kenya cofounder Joseph Larasha, at right, and fellow Masaai villagers

Tannian, who had no experience in building wells, started with a handful of ideas and improvised, much like she learned at the Conservatory, she says. Partnering with local tribal elder Joseph Larasha, Tannian founded Water Is Life Kenya in 2007.

“You drill the well, but along with that comes teaching the community how to shepherd their water source,” says the opera singer turned water activist. “In order for the well to remain functional, the Maasai had to learn how to create a budget for ongoing operation of the well, maintain the equipment, and ensure uninterrupted flow for the water users.”

There are now 30 wells in villages across 1.6 million acres in southern Kenya—about the same size as Tannian’s home state of Delaware—with plans for more. This means no more  onerous treks and clean water for everyone. More girls go to school, vegetable gardens flourish, and livestock thrives. Women have the free time to buy and sell at the market and return to a traditional craft, beadwork. For generations, beaded jewelry has been worn by both women and men on special occasions and as a sign of status. Today, tribeswomen sell beads worldwide on to provide income for their families and help fund projects for their communities like the wells.

“I like to call it a blossoming,” says Tannian. “Our slogan is ‘helping Kenyans bloom through love and water.’” She points out that Dorcas, who walked for hours to secure water as a young bride, obtained her high school equivalency certificate and became an early childhood development teacher.

While Tannian has not entirely left singing behind—she still performs as a cantor in church and as part of her speaking engagements for Water Is Life Kenya—her focus remains on the primary mission: bringing fresh water to the people of Kenya. “When water is readily available and people don’t have to walk miles for it or ration it, it changes lives. People can use their life’s energy to do other things: grow crops, build schools, get an education, start businesses, create, dream.”