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The International Writers Magazine: Kenya: East Africa - Archives

Water - if you're lucky
Kit Chapman
in Mombasa

e 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, it’s 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 he’s 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 happened.

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 you’re 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 answer’s usually unprintable.

Forget the drought issue, this lack of water in Mombas is a problem that exists whether it hasn’t 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 town’s 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 jumbo’d 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 I’d thrown away into the undergrowth in disgust, after it failed to stop me going down with a particularly bad dose of malaria. Alas no water.

‘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 mother’s weird ideas of cooking, involving no sense whatsoever of hygiene, I reckon I’m 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 town’s main’s 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…and 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 it’s 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.
‘I’m 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 you’ve 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 it’s 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. It’s 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 don’t 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 didn’t 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 that’s another story.

© Kit Chapman September 2006

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Kit Chapman in Kenya

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