International Writers Magazine: Kenya: East Africa
- if you're lucky
Kit Chapman in Mombasa
get woken up these mornings with the exhaust fumes of an ancient
and very arthritic cement mixer wafting in through the open bedroom
windows and through the mosquito netting. At least my wife Laura
does, its her coughing that wakes me.
The official cement
mixer operative arrives with his semi-official advisors, about twenty
of his extended family, including sons from first and second wives,
their sons and various cousins at about six a.m. The machine is surrounded
by the family and coaxed into action by a chant or two and a liberal
sprinkling of chicken blood over the starting handle.
It is being used to build a block of flats, next door to us, here in
Mombasa, Kenya. The flats are being built on a beach plot; actually
it is the beach and not a plot at all
not when the tide comes
in and obliterates whatever this hugely optimistic builder managed to
construct in the previous twelve hours. Still it saves the builder having
to find fresh water for the mixture of sand and mud used for shoving
in between the lumps of coral hes using to construct this edifice.
In fact if this block of flats ever gets built it will take a major
shift in the Indian Ocean tidal patterns
but stranger things have
Strange things like finding water in the Mombasa mains supply. The phenomenon
is so rare that if someone unwisely reports they have any, the word
gets round so quickly that a mass of hitherto unknown acquaintances
suddenly arrive complete with plastic buckets and containers swearing
undying friendship and promises of reciprocal water, in the unlikely
event that they get a trickle through their own tap.
The normal greeting to a friend at home, Nice weather for the
time of year, is unheard of here amongst the ex-pat community.
People look at you as though youre crackers. The weathers always
nice here, whatever the time of year. It rarely changes and so predictable.
No, the first thing you say to a friend in the street, shop or wherever
is. Got any water? or if you know them well enough, Had
at trickle lately? The answers usually unprintable.
the drought issue, this lack of water in Mombas is a problem that
exists whether it hasnt rained for months or deluges, until
the roads become rivers and people, buildings and animals are carried
away into a watery oblivion. The answer is in the complete lack
of any maintenance on the once, very adequate, pipe and reservoir
system for forty odd years.
If you want to,
you can call in a Water Diviner. There is apparently a substantial amount
of water under Mombasa, lurking somewhere within the substrata and bore
holes have been drilled to find it, seemingly with some success, although
there is a probability that the towns sewage has infiltrated the
water table. I called a Diviner in once, a nice old chap that had been
recommended by a friend, who swore that a friend of a friend had used
him and vast amounts of the precious liquid had been found under his
patio. He came complete with forked twig and mumbo jumbod away,
backwards and forwards across the garden searching for the source of
the Nile or lesser springs. He eventually found an old mosquito flit
gun Id thrown away into the undergrowth in disgust, after it failed
to stop me going down with a particularly bad dose of malaria. Alas
Mikocontainis. Now there's a mouthful for you. These contraptions
are people powered hand carts made of old car axles and orange boxes
which rush (relatively) about carrying all sorts of gear including water
and hired to anyone by rental firms, rather in the style of Hertz. You
can tell when a water Mikocontaini is around by the clanking of steel
washers that the operators attach to the wheel rims. This clacking along
the highways and byways of Mombasa like deranged tambourines with their
loads of old cooking oil containers filled with water is sold to anybody
with a cast iron stomach and about 20 cents to spare. I've tried it,
had to, but having been bought up on my mothers weird ideas of
cooking, involving no sense whatsoever of hygiene, I reckon Im
immune to pretty well anything short of a large dollop of arsenic.
How and when? you may ask do these purveyors of the precious
liquid get it to sell. Well, and this is where the African mind bends
itself into a wonderful entrepreneurial logic, they get it from the
towns mains water supply. This is done by shutting off the
valves on the mains pipe as it enters an area where a large number of
homes are dry and connecting a pipe and tap directly on to the water
main, up stream as it were, so they can fill their old cooking oil containers
bingo! A captive customer base.
Of course this, for want of a better word, blackmail is
highly profitable for all concerned. The vendor gets a cut, the Mikocontaini
owner gets his and the water board official gets some, although he probably
has to share his with various other officials including the Chief of
Police and local politicians.
Complaining to the Powers that be about the lack of water,
even when you know its being siphoned off, is well worth the effort
if only for a laugh.
Hello, is that the water company, you say.
Yes, how are you? replies a very nice sounding chap.
Im very well thank you, apart from having no water for the
last three weeks.
Well the elephants have stampeded and trampled all over the pipes.
But there are no elephants; they were all shot years ago.
They have travelled from Shimba in search of water.
If they find any will you tell me?
Certainly sir, what is your phone number?
One of the problems with water in these parts is not just how to get
it but what to do with it when youve got it. Some of us enterprising
sort, coming from a seafaring background, know all about pumps and what
not. We build a tank on or under the ground, enough to hold about two
tons of the rare elixir and another one on the roof of our houses. Then
if, and its a big if we are lucky enough to get water
through the mains we fill the bottom tank and the pump it up to the
roof tank as soon as possible. But wait
it is highly likely that
an electricity power cut is in operation, so power to the pump is also
off, so lady luck must really be smiling on you if both are in working
order. Anyway with the top tank full you can mooch around in seventh
heaven, wallowing in water as it comes through taps in the normal way,
until it all goes dry again.
There are also a number of ways that enterprising people have tried
to overcome the lack of water enigma. I have, in the middle of the heavy
rains, constructed a water catchment area consisting of a number of
upturned umbrellas with a hole on the bottom directing water into both
roof and ground tanks. Laura was not very happy about this, however
as they were her umbrellas, so I desisted. Another way is to wander
in and out of the various tourist hotels with empty water containers,
washing gear and even your weekly washing if desired inside large bags
stopping to have a shower, collect water and generally splash about
in the bar and restaurant lavatorial closets. Its not really recommended
though, the bag gets awfully heavy and the hotel staff get suspicious
and demand bribes to keep quiet.
The paradoxical factor about the complete breakdown of water supply
infrastructure is the hell you find yourself in if you dont pay
the Council for your water meter. It matters not a jot if any water
has passed through the damn thing for months, you still have a standing
charge to pay. These meters have been known to work, sometimes they
work backwards, so the council theoretically owes you money, but mostly
they are stuck, rusted up with disuse.
Conrad, a friend of ours, had his mains water cut off for non payment
in 1984 and didnt notice until he moved home. It was pointed out
by the new tenant. Conrad had survived very well cadging water from
friends and collecting rain water for seventeen years. He thought the
mains were broken and would be fixed sometime.
Rather like the power cuts
but thats another story.
Chapman September 2006
on the line
Kit Chapman in Kenya
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