Water is life

(Photos by Doreen Stratton)

The recent spate of articles featuring the shortage of fresh water and the proliferation of unpotable water recalled for me my week-long trip to Africa five years ago this February. At that time, I along with Phyllis Eckelmeyer and Alice Sparks had traveled to the Kenyan Maasai village of Olosho oibor.  As the committee for the Maasai Cultural Exchange Project (MCEP) our itinerary included a fact-finding tour of our organization’s programs. The schedule included visits to primary schools, water wells and visits with our Maasai friends. Francis ole Sakuda, a Maasai Tribal Leader and his wife Susan Naserian Nketoria hosted us in their home.

(Sakuda, the first in his village to attend college, holds an Anthropology Degree and a Masters in International Relations and Resolution. In 2018 he was appointed Kajiado County Executive Committee Member for Public Service, Administration and Citizen Participation.)

MCEP’s history with this Maasai tribe reaches back to 2003 after Eckelmeyer’s chance encounter with Sakuda on the Hamilton New Jersey Train platform. A conversation ensued and Eckelmeyer, realizing the struggle for potable water in Sakuda’s community founded MCEP. A partnership was formed with Sakuda’s NGO—Simba Maasai Outreach Organization (SIMOO) and our non-profit organization. After MCEP received a $30,000 donation, in 2005 the first well was drilled. Subsequently six more wells have been drilled across their village of 5,000 people.

Pipes traverse throughout the village carrying water to cisterns installed on individual manyattas, which is the Maasai term for property, usually encompassing a size of one acre. Piping also reaches inside three greenhouses that bring water for drip irrigation of vegetables, the staple diet in Maasai culture. School age girls, previously at home caring for younger siblings, are now attending school. Women, freed from walking miles every morning instead spend those hours perfecting their beadwork which they sell at market.

On the Sakuda manyatta, it is protected by a 20-foot tall wire fence intwined with branches from the prickly acacia tree. A 5,000-gallon polypropylene cistern sustains the family for all their water needs. One gate kept open during daytime hours is always secured at night. Inside the manyatta is a second fenced area called a Boo Oonkishu for livestock. Dogs are common fixtures in manyattas, becoming the alert system at nighttime against prowling wildlife. I remember waking from sleep one night… the dogs were furiously barking at something on the other side of the fence.

Five Nkajijik (Maasai plural for houses) are scattered around the Sakuda manyatta. Except for a Jikoni–a small building with a dirt floor where meals are cooked–all the other Nkajijik have concrete floors. During my 2009 visit I stayed in the Enkaji OOlmaasai the guest house built with cow dung and wood. In 2015 we stayed in the Enkaji oolashumpa, built with tin. The Enkaji where we ate and socialized, had three separate rooms.

The Choo–a word borrowed from the Swahili language–is the bathroom. Constructed of wood and mud it too has a concrete floor. Two drains opened in the concrete are approximately 5 inches in diameter and have been dug to a depth of ten feet. For the convenience of guests who’ve traveled from America the drain for human waste is fitted with a toilet commode cemented to the floor. The other drain takes the water emptied after personal body hygiene.

The Choo

Every morning I carried my soap, towel, wash cloth, a gallon plastic tub of warm water and a water bottle tucked under my arm to the Choo. Dipping the cloth in the warm water cleansing my body the best I could before emptying the rest down the pit drain.
At my two travels to Kenya I had witnessed women carrying the five-gallon metal jugs of water, a canvas strap stretched across their forehead that secured the jug to their back. The jugs are the same size as those plastic blue water bottles found in homes or offices.

Each time I observed women gracefully balancing these jugs I wondered if I can do the same. One afternoon sitting near the cistern while the women scrubbed their canvas shoes I asked if I could try walking with a 5-gallon jug of water strapped to my back. They filled a jug, tied the strap to my forehead and hoisted it on my back.
I could barely stand, let alone walk upright. I almost fell on my butt.

Compared to how people in developing nations around the globe subsist without potable water, my personal hygiene in Maasailand was a luxury. While the average American home uses 100 gallons of water a day, across the globe millions of people subsist on 5 gallons or less of diseased or non-potable water every day.
MCEP often speaks at public schools about the Maasai culture. No matter what the students’ grade level, it’s always a wake-up call for them every time we describe the tribe’s struggle for water.

The April 2010 National Geographic magazine published water facts. Here are some from the list:
• 2% is fresh water locked in snow and ice
• 1% is for consumption
• One out of eight people lacks access to clean water
• 46% of people on earth do not have water piped to their homes
• 3.3 million people die each year from water-related health problems
• 2 billion gallons are used each day for irrigating golf courses
• The largest water tunnel supplying New York city is 85 miles long and leaks 35 million gallons of water per day.

During our 2015 visit our friends described a rail line passenger project under construction by the Chinese government. Beginning in Nairobi, the line which travels south from Nairobi to Mombasa, was completed in June 2017. In a recent email from Francis, he reported that a Chinese project crossing through Maasailand had discovered a huge water aquifer. Francis was able to negotiate the well’s ownership to the Maasai community.

Now there are eight wells on Maasailand. MCEP’s goal has always been ten wells and we’re confident the last two will happen.

An Education Program that MCEP began with one hundred students and supported by donations in America, now remains with the final twenty-two students: ten boys and twelve girls. Twelve students are in high school; ten in elementary. Since 2015 I have been supporting Lisa Sinantei who I wrote about in a July 27, 2017 post, “Lisa’s in school!”. She is in Grade 5.

Two other Maasai young men, also receiving donations have matriculated onto higher education. This past summer a young Maasai woman graduated from university, becoming one more empowered woman prepared to lead her country toward prosperity. Educating young girls has saved them from arranged marriages, sometimes before they reach puberty; and has encouraged this patriarchal culture to follow Kenya’s law of banning FGM (Female Genital Mutilation).

President Trump’s recent edict to rollback regulations of the 1972 Clean Water Act, along with his complaints against water saving devices, brings me to paraphrase that legendary piece of dialogue from “Game of Thrones”:

You know nothing Mr. President.

Although the Maasai in Kenya continue to experience periodic droughts and threats to their pastoral culture, I witnessed why Water is Life; why Knowledge is Power; and 5,000 Maasai know many things.

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