Emma Cook ’14: Restoring the Balance

While studying abroad in Africa, Emma Cook 14 became deeply aware of the harsh challenges faced by people living in small villages and informal settlements. She returned to Africa this summer as a field representative for Saha Global, which places clean, readily available water - and financial control - in the hands of these communities.

When you ask about a Peddie alumni’s defining moment at the school, they often cite an independent project that led them to a future passion, the teacher who encouraged them or leadership experience in an extracurricular activity or club. For Emma Cook 14, it’s a phrase displayed on the wall of Peddie’s Annenberg Library, reminding students to always strive for the highest quality of citizenship. “I talk about Peddie way more than I should, being four years out,” Cook joked. “Peddie is an incredible place because it really shaped me into who I am.”

Cook took an interest in social justice and conservation long before she came to Peddie, where she held a leadership position in Peddie’s environmental club. But it was in college that she found an opportunity to pursue her passions and affect real change in the world.

Cook had no plans to study abroad. She didn’t want to spend an entire semester away from her studies in sustainability at Furman University. But a study that combined elements of sociology, psychology and environmental science in a look at health inequality in African countries caught her attention and she knew she had to go. She took four summer classes in order to graduate and go abroad but, “It was so worth it,” Cook said. “It was the most amazing experience.”

But it was also a hard, harrowing look at the availability of healthcare and other basic amenities in the third world.

“It was in no way aid work,” she said. “It was my first time traveling to any low-income country, and it was not your typical study abroad. We were in pretty tough conditions: visiting AIDS clinics, hospitals, orphanages and a lot of informal settlements in South Africa and Namibia. They’re not homes; they’re just little shacks built out of metal sheets. It was really tough to learn about the systemic oppression of the people and how it’s ongoing and to see the conditions people live in, especially in South Africa. We saw a lot of issues related to water and access to water. Their water isn’t free, and there’s no piped water in these informal settlements, so these people have to travel very far for drinking water that is still unsafe.”

The effect this experience had on Cook was profound. She not only wanted to come back to Africa; she wanted to do something to address the inequality she’d spent the semester studying. In the summer of 2018, Cook returned to Africa — not as a student, but as a field representative for Saha Global, a nonprofit organization that puts clean water in the hands of those who need it most. 

Saha Global works on a local level, establishing water treatment businesses and handing control of these businesses to entrepreneurial women in the villages, bringing both clean water and income to these communities. Emma and her team of four field reps plus a translator traveled to Zobogu, a village of over 400 people, to work closely with the people there. They presented their action plan with the village chief and worked closely with the four women selected by the community to run the new water treatment business. In addition to assisting the villagers in establishing the new water business, Saha Global will continue to monitor the business and offer assistance to the entrepreneurs for the next 10 years to ensure that this business continues to be a viable source of clean water for this community. 

While Emma was in Africa, Saha Global successfully implemented 6 new water businesses, trained 26 women entrepreneurs who now own and operate these new businesses and provided 2,356 people with access to clean water for the first time. “This was such an impactful experience — knowing that Saha Global is making a real, tangible impact towards providing people with clean water and helping people meet their basic human rights,” Cook said.

What does the future hold for Cook? Work. A move to Washington, D.C. Grad school, hopefully pursuing a conservation biology path, although Cook is open to other opportunities. The intersections between conservation and social justice are varied and numerous, and she’s eager to see what’s available to her and where she can go next.

Cook also has advice for current Peddie students and other Peddie alumni about pursuing passions: “Peddie helped me develop my curiosity in all aspects of life. I think that that is something that’s really helped me pursue what I want to do — find what I want to do, even. Be curious, always ask questions, always delve deeper.”