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It is very easy to take water for granted when it comes out of a faucet in our kitchens and bathrooms. It is the same for many people in Africa, especially the rich and the middle-class in Africa's cities.

children porting water in dahomey

For others, obtaining water is constant and arduous work -- walking to a river or a public tap and carrying water back home in basins or buckets. Not only water for cooking and drinking but all water needed for household cleaning must be obtained in this manner. Depending on the distance and other factors, it is sometimes easier to transport clothes and dishes to wash them at the water source than to transport water to wash these things at home; bathing also, especially children, is often done at a water source. The water source may be a long walk away. More often than not, this is work done by women and children. When water is available, it is not always healthy. Poor sanitation can be the cause of water-borne diseases.

Ryszard Kapuscinski

This is a fortunate village: water is nearby

The Shadow of the Sun (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001) is Ryszard Kapuscinski's collection of stories from four decades of reporting from Africa. He was the first (and, for a long time, the only) Polish reporter covering the continent -- arriving in the late 1950's for the early days of post colonial independence and working until the 1990's. In this excerpt, from a chapter titled "A Day in the Village of Abdallah Wallo," tells of the early morning chore of fetching water.

It is the girls who rise first in the village of Abdallah Wallo and go for water even before the sun is up. This is a fortunate village: water is nearby. All one has to do is climb a steep, sandy bank down to the river. The river is called the Senegal. On its northern shore lies Mauritania, and on its southern the country with the same name as the river -- Senegal. We are where the Sahara ends; ahead of us lies the barren, semi-arid, hot savannah known as the Sahel, which, several hundred kilometers farther south, toward the equator, will give way to the humid, malarial regions of tropical forest.

After reaching the river, the girls fill tall, metal tubs and plastic canisters with water, help one another place them on their heads, and, chatting, climb the steep incline back to the village. The sun rises, and its rays catch the water in the containers. The water trembles, sways, and glitters like quicksilver.

The girls disperse to their houses, their yards. From the earliest morning, from the onset of this expedition to the river, they are carefully and neatly dressed, always in the same way: in a wide, loose dress of flowered calico, ankle-length and concealing the entire body. . . .

The sounds of pots being set down and the splash of water are like the tolling of the bell in a small country church: they bring everyone to life. From the mud huts -- there are only mud huts here -- children tumble out. There are throngs of them, as if the village were a giant kindergarten. . . . They . . . rush to the buckets and canisters for a drink. Girls -- and only the girls -- seize the opportunity to wash their faces. It doesn't occur to the boys.
(A Day in the Village of Abdallah Wallo [Senegal])

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