Story by: Prince Wako
Access to water and the girl child in developing countries. Mother of the next generation, early in the morning, as church drums echo, down onto her knees, she talks to God. The sun rises over the sandy plains in the east, It illuminates her face.
Innocent and eager for success, she confronts the day starting with a pot of water. For miles she walks, with wishes running through her head. The day grows older and the sun laughs louder but she perseveres…
On Thursday 22 March 2018 The United Nations launched a 10-year water action plan that seeks to forge new partnerships and strengthen capacity for sustainable development. This is directly linked to safe water and adequate sanitation. A myriad of critical issues have been discussed at different levels world over, but one topic stands out as gravely complicated. In my humble opinion, the topic of supplying safe water in relation to the girl child in rural parts of developing countries is so complex and must be given utmost attention. The girl child, water, and development are closely woven and intertwined in that, I compare them to the human heart, blood, and veins. The society that raised me is constructed in such a sense that women are primarily responsible for providing water, sanitation, and care in a home. This goes on to emphasize that the duty of collecting water or even gathering firewood to boil water is usually relegated to the women. I want you to take a moment and think about the most productive activities in a rural home. Most of these roles are handled by women and in absence of water, the women and children suffer most. Before I share a story set in my ancestral village – Lwamboga, Butaleja District in Uganda, let me share these facts as presented by the World Health Organization.
In low and middle-income countries, 38% of healthcare facilities lack an improved water source. Secondly, research has shown that globally, at least 2 billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with feacal matter. Thirdly contaminated water can transmit diseases such as diarrhoea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio. Contaminated water is estimated to cause 502,000 diarrhoeal deaths each year. The world body also projects; by 2025, half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas. Lastly that poverty in Africa is often caused by lack of access to clean, safe water and proper sanitation. Well, I want you to have these facts at the back of your mind as you walk through my memories.
I was born and raised in urban Jinja, a district in Uganda, but I have roots in Butaleja district, the rural Lwamboga village in particular. Like day and night, the two geographical areas are distinctive and economically poles apart. Whereas you can buy a Jerry can of water from a public tap in Jinja, there is no such a thing in Lwamboga, Butaleja. Urban Jinja boasts of several industries and freshwater bodies, Lake Victoria and River Nile. In Jinja, the poverty levels are lower as compared to Butaleja. The massive water bodies are supplemented by reliable institutions of learning that compete favorably with those in other parts of the country. The presence of National Water and Sewerage Corporation services are so vivid and closely monitored to the extent that the majority of homes in the Urban areas have access to tap water inside their bungalows and mansions. Wells are a mystery here.
Once in a while every year, we gathered as a family in my ancestral village, Lwamboga in rural Butaleja District. Where domestic animals walked freely all over the place looking for food and water on their own. The idea of meeting my grandparents excited me. The joy of instantly eating fresh mangoes off trees filled me with anxiety. It was a time I always looked forward to – But I was only a child then. With the World Water Day on my mind, the memories of the past run through my mind. To the village, we carried every basic utility including fresh water. The atmosphere drastically changed, a child could easily tell, the environment was totally different. There were less grown trees, the sun rose earlier and the nights were very bright. My father made it a point to hire a Tipper Truck. This was loaded with huge-drums full of fresh water. Imagine drums of fresh water transported from Jinja to Butaleja via Tororo, which is about 120 Kilometers. If my memory serves me right, that was about 21 years ago. The rocky plains did not make the traveling any better. What the residents called roads were more like improved paths, dusty all through. Besides the roads, stood millet plantations and swamps. Upstream, small children were seen diving into the water, which water moved down to the open wells. I remember while they drove us, we found scores of women and girls walking. Others riding Hero bicycles. Those who rode carried Jerry cans of water. They instantly stopped to let any moving vehicle pass by, but were often covered in tones of dust as soon after. Others panicked on hearing the sound of the speeding vehicle, ending up falling off the bicycles. Some walked in groups. Many of these were energetic young girls carrying clay pots full of water on their heads. Some carried babies on their backs, young mothers. Now i can vividly see the meaning of these childhood memories. The responsibility of availing water in the village homesteads lay on these women and girls. In Lwamboga, we lived a communal life and domestic tasks were distributed based on gender. The society had been constructed in such a way that caring for children, elderly and the sick was a responsibility of the girls. Cooking, cleaning, collecting water from wells and firewood from woodlands was a task reserved for the girls too.
I remember one cousin Zubbedda, my aunt’s eldest daughter. Her parents so proud of her, she had successfully joined a Secondary school. She was getting older, being a village belle, maybe some men were sharpening their appetites ready to take her for marriage – just thinking. In my village, there were two types of wells that I remember, spring wells. These were well protected. Using stems of eucalyptus trees, barriers were placed around them, water kept flowing from underground. As a child, I wondered how water could flow from the ground and still remain clear. Birds flew from all corners of the village and dived into the spring wells, cooling their small bodies. Stray dogs also preferred this water, often were chased away by the locals. Water from here was rarely boiled. Little children with swollen bellies collected water in small jerry cans and drunk it immediately. These wells were found deep in the woodlands, beyond the huge rocks. One had to walk several kilometers from the homesteads to get there. Girls walked in groups every day, early in the morning before going to school and late in the evening on return. They had to fetch water for their families – it was mandatory. While in the village for reunions, mornings were so foggy and the day was covered in extreme heat. I remember feeling thirsty all the time. It felt like my throat was resting on the sun. Imagine the typical life of Zubbedda in my village then. One day she took longer than expected at the well. Her father started complaining, some relatives even suggested that she was spending time with men who were wooing her. So my uncle, the driver and I got into the pickup and headed to the well. I could not believe what I saw. The big boys from the nearby technical school had bullied every girl. Pots had been broken and many innocent girls were standing under the tree, shedding tears. Many lamented the horrors awaiting them back in their homesteads. Even when the boys found the girls in queues, they created all kind of chaos, killing order. The notion of first come first serve was not applicable. The pot Zubbedda had carried had been broken, her friend had been wounded as she tried to protect her and no one cared. Thinking of the emotional pain these girls faced all their lives for the sake of collecting water, it strengthens my resolve to bring to your attention the complexities of this topic.
When my grandmother was sick, Zubbedda was told to stop going to school, she had to stay, home taking care of the old lady. Every morning she got into the car with the old sick lady, they were driven to Busolwe hospital, where granny received treatment. ‘She is a caring girl.’ This was written across my heart. As a child, I knew she was a good person. When porridge was ready, she cooled it and served me with a smile. She was always busy taking care of everyone at home. The construct of the village norms made the people believe that her importance was more inclined towards domestic chores as opposed to a proper education. So often I heard my uncle boast that Zubbedda had been well groomed for marriage and she was now ready – Someone who had just joined secondary school! The next time I went to the village, she was married and had a toddler calling her mother. She now had a home for herself. Now I have answers to many of the questions that could have been in her mind before she dropped out of school for marriage. Remember, fetching water did not end at home. At school, the girls still took over the sanitation responsibilities, they could not go through any day without water. Even at school, they had to go to wells at specified times. By the time Zubbedda fully settled down to do school work and study, she was really tired and with my experience now I can imagine how she felt – So frustrating in a society that does not prioritize girl child education.
The second well I remember was the open well. This was usually surrounded by swamps and fed by streams. Streams that were swimming pools to the children and reliable water sources to all kinds of animals. The water here looked grayish due to the vigorous activities in the wells and the random entry and exit of livestock into the water source. These wells were not protected but thrived during the dry season. All that the locals did was to let the water settle in a drum for a while and eventually, sieved it. With the collected firewood, this water was boiled and ready to drink, but it was salty. When used for bathing, it turned the skin pale – there was no option at that time but this situation should not be left to thrive.
As we grow older, we should strive to right the wrongs with all of our strengths. I therefore invite you to reflect on the following scientifically and socially proven facts and do something about such situations in your immediate community. To a greater extent if a burden of fetching water from long distances in a remote area such as my village is squarely placed on the girls. There is definitely going to be less time for them to study. Even when they get to school, the morale and energy shall have disappeared. School attendance will then become a mystery and a burden to them. If we can get safe water close to such homesteads, we can increase the likelihood of girls staying in school.
Secondly, if water is available in schools, it will be comfortable for girls to stay there as it aids their dire need for good sanitation. The days of their monthly periods ought to be considered. So availing water in schools will aid the welfare of girl the child in school.
Thirdly, it is a scientifically proven fact that dehydration has a negative effect on the abilities of our brains. Imagine, I felt so thirsty while in the village all day. What about Zubbedda who had to do all the chores both in school and at home, how did she feel given the circumstances of, lack of cool fresh water to drink whenever desired? Definitely, this condition could not serve her abilities to concentrate in class and thus detrimental to furthering her education.
Lastly, girls do the caregiving. To the elderly and the sick. Noting the facts presented by the World Health Organization; ‘contaminated water can transmit diseases and, poverty in Africa is caused by lack of clean and safe water.’ If clean and safe water is availed in such rural areas, transmission of diseases will be checked. People will be healthy, parents will have more time to work, the girls will have more time to spend in school and do further studies. Healthy adults will work to improve the incomes of their families and thus provide the necessary basic needs in their respective homes. If access to water is available, then…
Innocent and eager for success, The yellow sun rays put answers on her face. She will confront the day with learning. Her goals will come alive.