Naka bechek bi? – How is the afternoon?
Bechek bangi fi rek – The afternoon is here only
Fan nga dem? – Where are you going?
Maangi rot – I am going to fetch water
Baxna, becci kanam! – Okay, see you later!
Christmas is a time to count your blessings. For the past 22 years, I’ve spent Christmas Eve with family at my Grandma’s house (Hi Grandma! Make sure you put some lemon bars out for Santa tonight, I hear he likes them). We usually go to the candlelight mass and then come back to the house for snacks and games.
This year, I have some different blessings. I have two new families to spend Christmas Eve with: my Gambian host family and my Peace Corps family. We’ve been singing Christmas carols with the radio in my village, and I’m meeting up with some PC friends in a nearby town today to celebrate.
But this blog is about a daily blessing that we take too much for granted in the United States: water. It’s easy to forget the importance of water when you’re surrounded by faucets, sinks, running toilets, hoses, showers, and pools. Here in The Gambia, the fetching and usage of water is a daily task, and is usually not easy. I want to say that this is just the water situation from my experiences here in village, and it is not necessarily the same situation for West Africa, The Gambia, this region, or even the neighboring village. Too often we lump together “Africa” into a single place, and water availability is vastly different based on your location.
Luckily for me, my village has numerous water taps throughout the village. I have one about 100 yards down the road that is shared by several other compounds. The tap is solar powered, as are most in my village, so it starts running in the morning around 8 or 9 and stops running in the evening around 5 or 6. This varies depending on the solar availability that day.
There are also several open wells in my area that can be used if the tap isn’t working. Peace Corps usually advises against us using open wells, but we advocate for well covers that help with the safety of the water. In nearby gardens and farms, like the Agriculture Training Center and Master Farmer, they have more intricate and reliable water systems for the crops. But for the most part, we use water taps in my village.
Fetching water is a daily activity. It’s actually one of my favorite parts of the day – it’s active, it’s engaging, and it’s very social. News and information are usually spread throughout town via conversations at the water pump. We have buckets and bedongs to hold the water – and covers for most of the containers. Women are usually the ones to carry the water, and they normally hold it on their head (Everyone laughs when I try to do this, so I carry my bedong on my shoulder). However, my host brother fetches his own water – taking down those gender stereotypes one day at a time. Another health aspect of water is keeping the water in a clean, covered container in order to keep it free of any pests. At my tap in particular, the pipe is exposed along the road, and there is a break in the line where water leaks everyday. That leak leads to a small puddle on the road.
The pipe that connects to the tap has begun to leak. This is typical throughout the village, and is usually held together with fabric or string. Throughout the day, the puddles around the tap grow larger and larger, attracting insects, animals, and trash. After we use the tap, we tie it to stop most of the leaking.Here’s the overall problem: wells, taps, and other water sources are built throughout this area with little to no plans for maintenance and upkeep. For every working tap, there’s a tap that has stopped working several months or years prior. Because there is little capacity building to fix broken taps, the solution usually is just to build another one. Sometimes you’ll see 2 or 3 broken taps right next to a working tap. It is often NGOs or other governmental organizations that come in and build the wells and taps, but when they leave, they take the knowledge to maintain the taps with them.
And here comes an American Peace Corps volunteer, ready and willing to assist in Health Education throughout my village, unable to fix the thing most vital to peoples’ health: water. Even in the US, I would really have no idea how to fix a broken sink (this is when I would call my Dad and ask him what to do). But the important thing is that we have trained plumbers and individuals with expertise in water systems. We use water for drink, for cooking, for bathing, for washing clothes, at the clinic, at the school, and in the garden; and yet here we’re at the mercy of someone coming and building a new tap if this one breaks. It’s an important lesson in international development: sometimes efforts like “Water for Africa!” are a watered down, often short-sighted solution to an extremely complex issue that faces people everyday.
The people here are extremely intelligent, and have been through this more than once. There are structures in place in the event that a tap stops working, and there is constant health surveillance on taps and wells in the area. The water is very safe (especially with my Peace Corps issued water filter) and I’m blessed to have a tap so close (and a family that loves to help me fetch water everyday). It’s just extremely important when talking about and working with the health of a community, to start at necessities like water.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!