NOTE: This post originally appeared on Owaahh.com, an award-winning blog in Keyna, and is being republished here with permission.
You’ve heard this story before. But you need to hear it again.
You know her. Or rather you know of her. Her story is like a million others you’ve read before. In documentaries, bad movies, and sad photos. She’s tall and dark. So skinny that her body seems to hang from her bones. She has a big smile. She is barely dressed, but she’s probably the only one properly dressed for this 30-degree sun.
She has a shaved head with spots of graying hair. She has wrinkles on her skin and beauty that refuses to wither, even with time and work. She has a prominent ididimat, a small marking at the top of her left cheek. They say it prevents cataracts. For this unproven vaccine, a hot rod is placed on the cheek. When it heals, it blends into the skin but stays slightly darker. When she smiles, it doesn’t wrinkle. It just sits there, like a beauty mark.
She has two kids. One strapped to the front and the other to the back. The one at the front, Lehan, can’t stop crying. The other one is blacked out, asleep in this midday sun. But none of them are her own children.
She is barely 47, but she has 7 kids and several grandkids. These two strapped around her are her grandkids. Their moms left in the morning to fetch water because here, at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, the story of water is yet untold. Its taps are not just dry, they dont exist.
You know this part of the story.
It is 10 km between her and the only place with water. The parents of the two kids strapped around her left for a water run, with a cart pulled by three donkeys.
Yet this isn’t even truly her home. In fact, home here is a concept.
The homestead is surrounded by a thorn fence, weaved together into an intricate web. There’s a small gate, and a kid goat hanging around. Two houses, one wooden and the other a manyatta. There’s enclosure in the middle of the compound. There’s a fat puppy, a few chickens, and countless goats. There is that one woman, and then nothing. No one else. When it rains, the water takes everything with it.
Everyone else is away because there’s no water. The men and the older kids are out grazing the other animals. The other women are out to find water. And she’s here holding the fort. She’s the babysitter, animal feeder, appointed cook for the day, and general factotum. Yet she smiles. In fact, she’s always smiling.
The last time I was in Amboseli, it rained the whole night and a river burst its banks. Within hours, the plains outside the sundowner spot at the dining room became a raging river. In a few more, a KWS Landcruiser on a rescue mission drove into a deep hole. Then it needed to be rescued too. The water covered the entire plain and all the animals disappeared to higher ground. There’s nothing like watching the wrath of nature with the background of Africa’s tallest mountain. It’s almost poetic, a scene from an apocalyptic movie that looks like a painting.
Because that’s the story of water here. It is either absent or murderous.
The project engineer, he says his name is Kevin, won’t stop talking. It’s a 3-step reverse osmosis, he says animatedly. He has a calm demeanor, at first, but water is his passion. So he geeks out a lot as he talks about why we are all here. The first stage is filtration. There’s a 0.5-micron filter, he’s saying, and two activated carbon filters. He won’t stop talking about water, and pressure, and tanks, and ingenious water bags and jerricans.
We are standing in Aqua Water Shop, built by the good guys at Africaqua and supported byCoca Cola’s Ekocenter. It’s a work of art, especially inside, where the swanky machines turn dirty water into useable, drinkable water. The real work is not above the ground, though, but below. 200 meters below this point, where Kevin is now strapping a water bag onto my back, is the closest point of underground water. The water has to cover 200 meters, and then go up another 10 or so meters to the water tanks, to make sense to the people of places like this. Drilling 200 meters underground, just 30 km from Mount Kilimanjaro, is no mean feat.
Without it, the only answer would be surface water. Or the few wells that are tens of kilometers away. And when the old man of Kilimanjaro decides to bless these plains, even that becomes impossible to find. Water is not just water here, it is everything.
Most rural areas use surface water more than water from any other water source. Piped water, which can be better managed, is still a dream. In areas as hot as Oloitoktok, the situation is worse.
It might look like a small water shop but it’s not. In Kimana, it’s more important than the tarmac or even a school. That’s why it was the Water Cabinet Secretary cutting the ribbon and flagging off the tuk-tuk. It’s a water shop with a delivery service. That’s why the Deputy Governor, the local MP and the MCA are here. That’s why Coca-Cola Ekocenter is here.
The typical Coca-Cola Ekocenter follows the same concept. With a few differences. The first is that it’s a converted 20-foot container. A kiosk that’s off the grid and fitted with a solar panel. Water is the primary theme, but as the place grows, it becomes something else. It becomes a community center of sorts, a small spring from which one can transform society. It’s a small victory to give the thousands of ladies who have to walk for hours to find water, but an even bigger one to give them a source of income.
It’s a story about how, if you solve this banal need, you solve everything else. You solve their food and their economy. You start a whole new line of employment, and everyone has more time to do the things they love. It is empowerment by any other name.
This is a story about water.
One Story is Good,
till Another is told.