This is the first part of a mini series of blog posts on our time spent in Africa with a look at various aspects of the basic necessities. I had originally planned it as one post, but it turned out to be a lot longer than expected (and a lot easier to digest in smaller increments).
You would expect Hargeisa, Somaliland to get quite hot, as it’s a desert. But the funny thing about deserts is that the heat is dry and arid so that you don’t quite notice it. And the nights are cool and starry so you get a break from the intense heat and can even feel cold.
Therefore when you wake up in the chill of early morning, it is not a pleasant experience to jump in the cold shower. And that is precisely what you must do. You reach over into the tiled corner of the bathroom that has a shower and drain and stretch your arm as far as possible so as not to get even one icy drop on your skin before you are ready.
Then you heave once, heave twice, heave thrice before jumping in with loud yells, deep gulps of air, a bit of hyperventilation until your nervous system is shocked into submission. You don’t dally in the shower, but you are not in quite as much pain as you were at first, and when finished you towel yourself off vigorously feeling euphoric and freshly scrubbed and alive.
You quickly let go of the idea that your hair should be washed every day.
You don’t drink the water fresh out of the tap, although those accustomed to it (the locals) do. You boil the water and let it cool or you just buy bottles of water. And when news of a drought reaches even the sheltered bubble of a life where the expat lives, you know the situation out there is getting bad.
A neighbor whom we had not met before stops by with two jugs and asks if she can fill them from our faucet. We are confused but we say yes, of course. Our compound has a very large water silo on top of the compound, which fills to the brim when the water is abundant and decreases in volume only very slowly. Because of this we are not even aware that there is a water shortage.
We make the decision to refuse no one but to limit everyone’s water intake until the situation is alleviated, even our own. We drive over the bridge and see people dipping old water bottles into a thin trickling creek, that used to fill the water bed. They don’t have money for bottled water, so without this they will have nothing at all.
The orphanage had no running water and that was one of the projects our team was focused on, with the major improvements happening a year after we left. Malinda, our team nurse, was able to prove that almost all of the illnesses and deaths in the orphanage were related to a lack of proper hygiene due to the absence of fresh water. Indeed, when you use your fingers as spoons to scoop up the nutrient-laden porridge donated by some NGOs, clean hands become the most basic of necessities.
Djibouti – the neighboring city/country that shares the same clan, language and culture as Somaliland, but nevertheless could not be more different in every way – Djibouti is a desert too, but it is quite hot.
I don’t know if it’s because Djibouti is on the sea and all that humidity gets sucked up by the desert air but unlike sea towns, there is absolutely no breeze to move it. Even in South East Asia I have never felt a hot like I felt there.
You leave your (hopefully) air conditioned dwelling and walk into the wall of humidity, and immediately start to drip with sweat – even if you’re someone who almost never sweats. You don’t want to go anywhere. Walking even the shortest distance takes a tremendous amount of effort, and it doesn’t help that you are a white beacon of wealth and have to swim against the tide of hopefuls looking for a handout. (Please don’t mistake me for a colonialist but we learned the hard way that certain methods of giving are more effective than others).
Of course an icy shower would be a welcome diversion in this kind of heat, but that is an utter impossibility. The water that comes out of the faucet is never anything but hot. I’m not talking hot enough to make tea with, but most definitely hotter than tepid. It’s hot enough that you start to lose any memory of what it would be like to have cool water running over your skin.
Speaking of tea, you cannot even boil the water in Djibouti to make it because it tastes like salt. The locals don’t notice it and drink the water with relish, but a cup of tea made with Djiboutian water will be the saltiest one you’ve ever had. (You need only try it once to not make that mistake again). So you buy bottled water for everything. Everything!
When there is no water coming out of the tap for 2 days, you even buy bottled water to flush the toilet (and regret the waste – in the future you keep bottles filled with tap water for just that eventuality). You learn to pour it into the back of the toilet because it requires less water to flush.
Sir and I were opening operations in Djibouti and it was just the two of us, but we made the mistake of listening to an African team member who stated that in Africa, presence is everything. He convinced us to rent a large house on the sea that would serve as our compound, similar to the one we had in Somaliland. This would give us the same status as a larger NGO and the government would take us more seriously.
But nothing was the same as Somaliland. When we were renting the apartment in the city center, at least we were in the thick of things where there were people all around. At least it was a one-bedroom and easy to keep cool. At least it was easy to keep clean.
In renting the house on the sea, our loneliness was highlighted in stark contrast to all the families cooling off together on the beach, able to see into our compound but unable to enter because of the fence. We had one guard with whom we could not communicate, unlike the friendly relations we kept up with our staff in Somaliland. And we dared not leave our bedroom to go anywhere else in the house because it was just too hot. Any potential benefit of having a house on the sea was utterly wasted.
The mere effort of sweeping the floor outside of the air conditioning left me with sweat streaming down the tip of my nose. And I washed all of our clothes in the bathtub, plunging the articles into the naturally hot, soapy water before rinsing and wringing them out and hanging them outside to dry.
All that was missing was for someone to come and wring me out after such sweaty effort. (But on the upside, the clothes dried very quickly in spite of the humidity).
Nairobi only had running water 2 or 3 days a week. This meant that the vats for the house got filled on the first day that there was running water and the water in those vats was meant to last a week. But there was always this subtle pressure that it wouldn’t. Or that the week would be up and the city water system would not have turned back on to refill everything.
The water was fresh, available in both hot and cold but the shower nozzle just hung there, taunting us with its futility, because the real “showers” were taken standing in a baby bathtub (set inside the regular bathtub) with a plastic bucket to pour the limited amount of water over your body.
I still remember coming back to my friend’s apartment in NY after having been away for a year adjusting to the basic necessity of water in its varying states of availability, and standing in the shower as the hot water poured all over me with a consistent heady pressure. To say that this luxury was greatly appreciated would be an understatement.
But it was nothing like the time when the Spring sky changed ever so slightly upon our return to Somaliland – post 9/11, post Djibouti and Nairobi, Sir and I humbled and grateful to be back. Clouds appeared and the skies grew dark, and then it started to rain. It rained in the desert! Chris ran inside to get us all a cup of chai tea and we sat on the porch watching in wonder as the rain fell from the sky and soaked the sandy earth. We stayed out there for awhile afterwards, appreciating the desert shrubs glistening uncharacteristically with dew.
It was magical.