Water, a most precious commodity

by Sophie Daud [email protected]

Algarve resident Sophie Daud, 19, has embarked on an adventure to Kenya in Africa. She has joined 15 other volunteers in a project supported by the Kenya government that aims to protect and preserve the country’s flora and fauna.

The past fortnight has been dominated by water, a commodity whose absence and excess have carved the paths of two very different locations.

My second week in Kenya was spent on satellite camp in Mahandakini, a small, dusty village on the border of Tsavo West National Park whose spirit is personified in its inhabitants.

Mud huts are spread over a great area of semi arid, dry savannah, all built with stone and tin roofs, dogged and determined like the robust men and women who persist in growing maize for a living despite its poor yields in the dry climate.

Children have furrows etched into young brows as remnants from the severe beatings from the fierce desert winds, just as houses claim grains of rusty brown sand as extra guests in every corner of every room.

Here was the typical cliché that all people told me to expect of Africa; with extreme water poverty living alongside failing crops and sparse, barren landscapes. Indeed, we had very limited water usage, which meant we could not wash for a week, nor use toilets with flushes, opting instead for drop toilets.

Whilst initially this was not pleasant, the fact that we had a superb view of the cold crags and isolated icecap of Mount Kilimanjaro meant that early morning loo trips were ones of astounding beauty.

Yet what was more shocking was that the water situation does not have to be as such. Only half-an-hour away, upon climbing a few hundred metres over some rough, shrubbery clad terrain, you encounter the most beautiful yet surprising event – a lake.

Fed by the melting glacial waters from Kilimanjaro, Lake Challa is a fresh water source whose life giving opportunity is tainted by superstition. Old tales of curses bestowed upon it, and the more recent support due to a tourist disappearing in its deep blue depths, mean locals refuse to live anywhere nearby nor use the water.

Tradition appears to be holding back a population who seem to brim with new dreams for the future. Indeed, Mahandakini has plenty of aspirations. Once a hotspot for illegal poaching, the inhabitants have worked hard to change their ways and have now created a community based organisation to bring money to the area more sustainably, by creating jewellery from cloth and making boxes from recycled elephant poo.

Our job is to help them with this quest, and I found myself teaching accountancy to ensure accurate records. Whilst initially dismayed at such a chore – accountancy? Dull, I thought – it was with great pride that Jo and I took our student Jackson through a series of lessons.

His enthusiasm to learn despite huge language barriers and no training whatsoever were motivational and eye opening, for whilst the processes we were teaching appeared simple to us both, Jackson struggled immensely. I was suddenly aware of the impact of my own education and also how much others craved such opportunities, and when, at the end of the week, Jackson could recount what a liability was and complete a balance sheet, the sheer joy of the experience was overwhelming.

My third week has been equally overwhelming but in a much different way. We returned to Shimoni, but crossed to Wasini Island just opposite and are staying on the marine base at Mkwiro. Here, life is surrounded by water- and yet despite its abundance, we are still shrouded by problems with it.

The air is humid and damp, with clothes unable to dry and food turning acrid within hours. We are surrounded by salt water, none of which is potable, and hence every day is crammed with communal chores to check fresh water supplies, heaving large jerries of water around base as sweat drips steadily from our tired bodies.

We can only wash in salt water, either in jug showers or on the beach at high tide, which, whilst entirely idyllic, leaves a sticky sensation on your skin, your clothes and your sheets.

Infrastructure is scarce and inefficient, leading to dehydrated members of the community all around. Our work at Mkwiro involves researching cetaceans, and this week we had a fantastic sighting of a group of 18 bottlenose dolphins swimming alongside  our boat, Bardan, for roughly an hour-and-a-half.

We are keen to observe their behaviours and paths, as well as their reaction to the numerous noisy tourist dhows who seek the dolphins out like hunters in the wild. We snorkel transects and monitor turtle presence, as well as noting the general fauna, whose tropically bright colours are startling and enticing.

We are hoping to see humpback whales, as there was a sighting last week whilst we were at satellite camp, which should be possible as their migratory route passes alongside East Africa.

Days on the boat are long and sun-beaten, and we are drinking litres of water a day. Let my final conclusion for this fortnight be this – whilst water is always a problem wherever you are in Kenya, it is an increasing one at this moment in time – Ramadan.

Shaffi, our boat captain, cannot eat or drink from 4:30am to 6:30pm, a task which requires dedication and stamina in such harsh conditions.

So whilst the nights are brimming with happiness and exhaustion from breaking the fast, my perception of water and its modern availability have already been drastically altered, leading me to believe that perhaps other countries attempting to fast would perhaps give our residents a newfound appreciation of what we take for granted, water.