A week ago I returned from a four day writing gig in Dar es Salaam; the remit, to highlight areas of need for a large UK charity. I loved the work – I learned so much, I spoke to so many different people. I interviewed an albino woman, her albino child, a snowwhite baby boy, strapped to her back. I learned about her mothers’ fears to keep her safe in a country where albino body parts are prized in black magic and voodoo. I met newly successful entrepreneurs. I marveled at a man who volunteered in protecting his – and his community’s – environment. And then I came home and scribbled for days, submitting my commissioned case studies, articulating my reflections.
And I thought that for the horror, for the disappointment, for the poverty and the disease, Africa never fails to amaze me with her ability to unfurl her palm and reveal the brightest gems. That even in the godforsaken slum I describe below, I met hope in the volunteer and I met humour.
The valley is strewn with rubbish. Feet deep. I can smell it. Fetid and warm in temperatures that rise above 30 degrees.
It’s not bad yet though. Not as bad as it could be. When the rains come – as they will, in March and April when tropical storms sweep in and out and lash so that mud slides and corrugated iron roofs clatter with the downpour – the humidity will sweatily, steadily soar and the garbage will ease upwards and down the valley towards the single source of water that this community relies upon.
And flies will rise as steam.
I contemplate, as I walk and watch and witness conversations: there’s a lethal cocktail here, waiting for the shaker that the wet weather will be.
I don’t know what’s in these bags of rubbish, some have split open to reveal seeping innards – I’m not about to delve too deeply. I pick my way gingerly through the tip (in closed shoes:’ wear your trainers’, urged my partner on the gig, ‘not Birkenstocks’) as we make our way carefully down the incline towards the water. But I can imagine. I can imagine what’s in these bags. There are no recycling bins here. No safe, monitored, managed, tidy system of rubbish collection and disposal. No modern sanitation. There will be bags of rotting food. Bags of plastic bags, bags of newsprint that will be picked up by the wind and tossed as confetti to add to the sea of litter that swims the streets.
Bags of shit.
If you wonder why disease is rife in places like this you only need to picture the ‘dumpo’ – its Kiswahili name translates, literally, as Valley of Water. An appalling misnomer. It’s not the shaded glades and dappled brooks and streams that its name conjures. It’s a place where the earth has been gouged by erosion so that it sinks, where ramshackle buildings teeter precariously, their shallow foundations visible, like the roots of old men’s toolong teeth. Loosened. Accidents waiting to happen: like the structures that collapsed last year. Including two latrines, which toppled as rain fell, to be washed up the valley. Taking their toxic cargo with them.
Everything about this place seems precarious. Not just the houses. The proximity of water to waste. Life to death. Skinny kids, unshod, snotty nosed, yellow eyed, huddle to eavesdrop on conversations they don’t understand; they are intrigued by our hair. Our shoes. Healthy children in Africa – children whose skin shines glossily (the children here have lost their lustre) often scamper after palefaces and shout ‘mzungu, mzungu’. Not here. Here they can’t be bothered. Don’t have the energy. Here the air is oppressive with apathy and exhaustion.
I’m dying for a drink. I think of the cool box in the car, full to the brim with Coke and cold water. They need some Coke-Adds-Life here I think. They need water. I’ll wait to slake my thirst. Swigging from a bottle as I walk seems impossibly, unbearably, tauntingly, cruel. I must drink 2 litres, 3, maybe 4, in this enervating heat. These kids won’t be drinking enough. Their pee will be jaundiced too. And what they do drink won’t be Evian-safe. When they get sick, sicker, when their tummies begin to run they won’t have the reserves of fat, or fluid, to sustain them for long.
I think about that for a long time. I think about the thoughtless way I turn on a tap to wash my hands and run it as I lather my palms lavishly. I remember the local doctor’s words, ‘we tell them to wash their hands, the mothers, we tell them to wash their children’s hands’. How? How will they do that when there is no tap? How will a child remember – as we have urged our own children since they were little – to wash their hands after they’ve been to the loo. How would our children remember if there was no tap in evidence to nudge a reminder? How will a safe habit develop? The doctor says, ‘these mothers, they are ignorant’. But prompts – like taps beside a loo that always obligingly deliver water – are a luxury. Would we remember – would we bother – to wash our hands, rinse our fruit clean, wipe our children’s faces down if the water wasn’t there. If we had to clamber over hundreds, thousands, of kilos of suppurating bags of rubbish to get it to it. And if when we got to it, it was foul and spoiled anyway.
I know I wouldn’t go to the trouble.
At the bottom of the valley, where the waste and the water reach out to touch one another so that you just know there is a noxious leaching, you don’t need the water to be analyzed to tell you that, and I know I wouldn’t touch it in a million years, there is a young boy scooping handfuls to drink from a pond dammed with a truck tyre. His palm is cupped, his head thrown back. He drinks thirstily. It doesn’t matter if he didn’t wash his hands before he put them to his mouth; the water’s filthy. I can discern a smell. In the rains it will rise to a stench.
It dribbles from a spring and the further it gets from the source, the shallower it becomes. In the dry weather, now, people dig to get water. A gaggle of girls have mined a basin in the sand and are doing their laundry. Bubbles of detergent rise and pop. A sick man is supported up the valley, his feet only just touch the ground, his arms are slung over the shoulders of a young girl and her father, he’s too weak to bear his own weight. The sick man’s flip-flopped feet trail in the water all the way down the thinning stream.
I wonder where they’ll take him – when they’ve dragged him up the steep sided valley and to the main road. They’ll flag down a boda-boda, a motorbike, they’ll grapple about for some change to cover the fare. The nearest hospital to this community is a Mother and Baby unit. Not much use if you’re a man with malaria or cholera or dysentery or a bit of everything. But they’ll shore him up for a few hours. Until he stabilizes, when he’ll be ferried across to the district hospital.
Or until he dies.
The doctor tells me, ‘sometimes the mothers leave it too late’. They do. Small bodies desiccate with speed, and dangerously. An ill-educated African woman from the ‘valley’, on a dollar a day, if she’s lucky (and the boda-boda fare to the hospital is half that at least) is going to leave it as long as she dares. And whilst daring she won’t know to examine the child’s fontanel, is it sunken? Won’t gently pinch the skin to check for elasticity, wont’ sweep the inside of her baby’s mouth with a (clean) finger to register how wet – or dry – it is. She will not notice when the child cries that there is no longer enough liquid within to create tears to fall. She doesn’t know about electrolytes. She is unlikely to have a sterilized mug or bottle to hand filled with rehydrate to coax the child to sip. She may heave a sigh of relief when her child falls asleep. She won’t know that it may never wake up.
More than 2 million children die every year from dehydration. Most of them in Africa.
I have water at home – there’s no excuse not to wash my hands – and an education.
The women I met had neither.
If you had to choose – had to – what would be your choice?
And then remind yourself that the women I met had none.
Water. Education. Choice.