Friday, October 15, 2010

Blog Action Day Post: My Water Story

So. Today is Blog Action Day. And the theme for this year is WATER. So I’m going to tell you a bit about myself so you can understand why the issue of universal access to water very important to me. If you’ve been here long enough, you know I’m from Phokeng, a village in the North West Province best known for its platinum mines.

People in the media call us the richest tribe in Africa. I just call them crazy, because even though we do have resources, and in the past 15years or so those resources have been used to develop our village, that was not always the case.

Back in the days of Apartheid, I think we had a middle man (not sure what government called him, but he was supposed to hold the royalties from the mines in trust for us, like we were kids. And basically, we did not have access to the money, so we couldn’t build roads, or schools or clinics except by each individual family making a contribution to the communal pot ear-marked for projects (which they did). We certainly didn’t have access to running water in the village.|Start Petition

The many ways to skin a cat… ahem.. collect water

There was however, a river that ran at the bottom end of the village ( less than 300 metres from my own home), which had a dam for general water use and a spring for drinking water. There was also a communal water pump in the centre of the village; the kind that has a long arm and you had to push it round and round to get it to pump water. I tried to find an image of the pump to show you, but unfortunately couldn’t. Must have been a really old model.

Anyhoo, the kids who were responsible to collecting water for their families either went very early in the morning, or in the afternoon. There were several ways the children and women who were responsible for getting water could collect the water from either source:

1. You can carry a 20litre bucket on your head. Problem with that scenario is that you have to go several times, because 20 litres of water doesn't go very far when you use it in the household to bath the family, cook, wash dishes, clean, drink and do laundry. And yeah, occassionally you have to do your windows or wash your curtains and blankets.....
2. You could take a big plastic container ( one of the 50litre things that were originally used to contain industrial material, washed clean). You fill it up with water, close it and then you kick the container home. If you’re lucky, your home is on a downward incline from the water source, so the container just rolls along.
3. You hire the local donkey cart owner to take you and your many 50litre containers to the water source and back. It probably cost less than R10 for a trip, but most families couldn’t even dream of affording that cost.
4. Then there were those who could afford to hire a van to transport their water. That was nice.

Lucky, lucky, lucky!

Yes, I was lucky, even way back then. My crazy parents, who weren’t actually well-off, sank a fortune into digging a borehole at my home. I think we lived on beans for a decade after that ( and I mean the dried ones we grew, not the canned stuff:-)

But it also means that for many years, I was one of the lucky few who actually didn’t have to collect water. I was envious, because it was a communal activity I could never participate in. And it took place everyday. Even when I went with the other kids, they knew I went for entertainment and not because of a need. Which didn’t endear me to them. I suspect that’s when I actually got used to watching people for the most part, rather than being with them, which led me to the writing and journalism.

So where are we now?

Things have changed a bit. The South African government is installing water systems for villages across the country and has been doing so since the democracy began. As you can imagine, this was a huge backlog. The Bafokeng won the legal right to manage their royalties, and that story has also been a success. And some of those resources have been used to provide water for the people.

But, here’s the thing: water is usually brought closer. As in, you have a water tap in your home and have access to the municipal water system. But that does not mean that you have a plumbing system of any kind in your home, or the money to hire a plumber to install it. Yes, new houses are now built with plumbing. But older houses? Not so much.

So, I thank God when I go home and see people easily accessing water from their taps. But, I also know that if I spend the night at a cousin’s house, chances are very big that:
a) Someone has to constantly go outside to get the water. Same 20 litre bucket or industrial container; shorter distance.
b) You have to use a latrine outside (ever had to go after 11pm and been told you had to do your business outside, in a small, dark room?
c) You can’t take a quick shower because you want to freshen up. Wipe with a cloth and wear extra strong deodorant!
d) Your real bath water comes from a kettle ( or a couple, depending on how many people are in the family and how soon y’all have to get ready), in a bowl.
e) And for some luxury, you can heat up huge pots of water, take a big metal bath to your room and then pour hot, then cold water into it and then indulge. It’s a bitch though, having to carry that bath full of water outside to throw away, so best you have someone already prepared to help you carry it.

So. No. I don’t take my own easy access to water in my home for granted. And I want to ask you not to either.

I also want to ask you to do whatever you can to help any initiatives that take water to more people. And once the taps are brought nearer to the people, don’t dust your hands and assume your job is done. Because there’s still more that can be done.


tiah said...

This was fascinating.

Not the same thing, but your childhood outlook on not fetching water had me thinking back to preschool when I was one of the few kids with "only" two parents. No step-parents - how unfair!

po said...

Wow. Incredible post! So much has changed for the better in the past 15 years or so. I never had to fetch my own water. I love hearing about your childhood, I think you should definitely write a memoir!

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

Human beings are so fascinating! Interesting reading about you as a child wanting to collect water with the other children when you parents had sacrificed so much to get a borehole.

And, yes, I have used an outside loo - on my ouma and oupa's farm in the eastern cape outside Indwe when I was a child. Give me city luxuries any day!

Damaria Senne said...

@tiah and judy - LOL. You're right. human being are strange. I think it's also the need to belong to society, even if the activity that unites you is tough on you. God, I hope that doesn't explain ( in a small way) gang actvity!

@po - I'm glad you enjoy my trips down memory lane. I suppose at some stage I am going to write something. It's just that, in my head, memoirs are about people who've actually done something important. You know, walked from Cape to Cairo. Won Olympic Gold swimming and beat lots of records (Natalie Du Toit) Beaten, raped and throat slit, and still dragged self, holding head in place, to get help (y'all remember that chick). So I feel I have done nothing important that warrants a memoir. Maybe when I'm old? LOL. You just gave me a post idea: When is it a good time to write your memoirs?

Janet Riehl said...


Your story of the place water plays in the lives of village people all across Africa is moving to me. Your span of options to obtain water--and it's social function as well--give important education to those whose lives have been radically more privileged.

When I was in Botswana and Ghana in the 1970s for five years, I learned to head-carry water from communal taps, and the river. I could never manage to carry with no hands; I always had to support my bucket with one hand. The grace of women and children who did head carry their water continues to amaze me.

Clean, safe water is arguably the most basic need of any society. Unless we have that we can never have sustainable societies throughout the world. We can never halt the unnecessary deaths at all ages from diseases that could have been prevented. Even boiling unsafe water does not erase that risk.

Janet Riehl

Janet Riehl said...


Memoirs? Memoir? There is a difference.

Memoirs are usually written by famous people.

Memoir can be written by anyone with a story to tell.

Story Circle Network focuses on Women's Memoirs. I am a guest blogger for Telling Her Stories:

This is a valuable resource for women who want to write memoir and write it well.

I also encourage you to write more about your life. You've developed a strong voice. Your clear view of Africa through multiple lenses is one we need to know about.

Janet Riehl

po said...

I feel like the stories you have to tell of the way of life when you were young are important because that way of life is probably going to be extinct soon. And as you are a story teller, what better person to preserve an account of how life was for future generations than you? Future generations would know nothing of the way life was for you if they are not written into stories or memoirs now :)

Damaria Senne said...

My first response was, "you know, Po's right. You should do this. Maybe have a day in the week dedicated to a pot about your growing up years." [and Janet too]

Then Ms Cautious said:"Don't forget the last time you listened to good ol' Po. You ended up in a farm in the middle of Free State farmland, with no car to take you further!"

But I'm more inclined to ignore Ms Cautious (it was an adventure, and I met interesting people and learnt a lot). For now though, I'm not making promises to write my memoir:-)

po said...

Hahahahah good point, I did send you out to commute with the mielies didn' I? Well, even if you write about your childhood sometimes on your blog, it is enough for me :)

po said...

I mean commune, not commute. Although I guess you did travel quite far to be with the mielies.

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