An Igby Prize essay on water by Kenyan Cj Gicheru: First published in the Kalahari Review
Something startles me.
A noise, cracking open the silence of the night.
I wake up. Footsteps. Coming quickly up the stairs. Keys jingling, one is inserted into the keyhole. It is turned. The door opens, it screeches, the hinges really need to be oiled. Footsteps coming closer. A click and bright light fills the room. Footsteps. I turn towards the sound.
She is picking up (mtungis) jerricans. Trying to fit as many as she can into her hands. In another life, the 20 liter jerricans carried Fresh Fry cooking oil. Now they have been co-opted, washed by warm water and soap, baptized and declared to be born anew. They do the Lord’s work, ferrying water from the neighbors tap downstairs and into our house.
She manages to fit 2 in each hand, she tries to carry another, it falls down noisily.
“Eeeeeh, angusha zote!” My mum shouts from her side of the room. I thought she was asleep, but nothing ever gets past her.
The house help says nothing. It is her turn to fetch water. She picks up her 4 mtungis, walks silently out of the room. Then….
“Zima hiyo stima before mtoto aamke!” Mama orders.
A click. Darkness. Footsteps. The metal door closes. Keys jingling, one is inserted into the keyhole. It is turned. The door closes, the hinges really need to be oiled.
I hear the sound of a mtungi falling down the stairs. Footsteps, running down the stairs, she is picking up her jerrican. Silence.
I go back to sleep.
Growing up, this scene would replay in our house twice a week. My mum and our house help working in shifts every Tuesday and Friday night to ensure there was constant water in the house. The City Council in their wisdom had figured that pumping water in the middle of the night was the solution to the city’s perennial water problems.
The adults would wake up at 1 am, carry water from the neighbor’s tap downstairs for an hour before climbing into bed to continue with their sleep. It meant that water was precious to us. Every drop carefully used. Water was used and reused before finally being used to flush the toilet when the stench became a little too dreadful. It meant suffering a thousand little indignities, just so that we could ensure that our stock would last until the next time they pumped the water.
You wonder, why not buy the damn water from a supermarket?
Interesting argument, but it always came down to the cost. Would mama have rather bought water at 50 bob a jerrican or bought bread for tomorrow’s breakfast? Bought water or paid her fare to work?
Our water came from the city council. They were and still are required to provide city residents with water. They fail miserably. Choosing the easy to publicize projects (roads, stadiums, railways) over projects that could really make our lives better. I understand. When one’s thinking is influenced by elections cycles, suspending logical thinking is necessary. Water today is controlled by the County Government who in their wisdom ration water to city residents. Of course such rationing is unfair. The residents of the greener estates in the city don’t seem to complain much. The rest of us hate it. It means that for a large portion of the city’s population, water is precious. Its use something to be thought of intentionally. No drop is wasted. Of course, this deliberateness holds until you cross over to the estates where the owners of the city’s capital live. It is common to see sprinklers alive at midday as the rest of us commoners battle Nairobi’s January heat. All this as a woman in Pumwani juggles between buying a 20 liter jerrican of water and vegetables for dinner. But I apologize, I understand, Memsahib likes her grass green. Damn the rest of the city.
So you ask then, what water means in my city. It means dignity, that when my father visits me he can use the shower and not have to take a bath from a bucket. That he doesn’t have to call me into the bathroom to help him out because his back is too tired from all the bending.
It means a full stomach. I do not have to eat in restaurants just so that I don’t incur the cost of water for washing hands, food preparation and, dishes before and after eating.
It means tenderness, that I can scrub joyfully my lover’s back when she is here. That she doesn’t have to walk out of my house, into a matatu and back to her house to shower.
It means I can show love to the people I love…in a thousand little ways. A liter at a time.
- Mtungi – Jerrican (Jar for carrying water)
- “Eeeeeh, angusha zote!” – Drop all of them
- “Zima hiyo stima before mtoto aamke!” – Turn off the lights before you wake the baby
- Matatu – Mini-bus