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.
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.