End of the line

Thursday, January 31, 2013 - 18:56

The women of Maunguja, a small village about 45 minutes inland from lush Bamburi beach in Mombasa, have a problem – water. An old colonial water system has broken and been patched up over and over again. Either the pressure isn’t enough to push the water through the pipes or, if it is for once, it pushes the rotting seals apart and the pipes burst. A trickle comes through, usually at night, and even that can dry up for days on end.

When women filled in time diaries, recording how their time was spent over the period of a year, it was the issue that came out foremost. There are many others – lack of schools, clinics, the deterioration of the environment as trees are cut for firewood. But ahead of everything else it was water that was causing the greatest problems.

It’s women and girls who have the responsibility of providing the family with water for drinking, cooking and washing. And if it isn’t coming down the pipe they have to go and find it – from wells or digging down into dry river beds. Often the water is dirty - animals are sharing the same sources - or too salty to drink.

Women have to queue, sometimes all night, at the few privately owned taps and the price of the water they do get has rocketed since water provision was privatised. Going ever further afield to fetch water has also exposed them to rape and harassment.

The Unpaid Care Work programme has brought about changes in the community – having filled in the time diaries and discussed them in a group the women shared their problems with the men. Some have resisted any change in traditional roles, others have acknowledged the unfair burden of work that women bear and have agreed that they, and their sons, must share it with the women. Others have agreed to carry water containers to the outskirts of the village, but won’t be seen openly carrying water to their houses.

It’s the beginning of a social revolution – recognising the fundamental, and inequitable, role that women play and starting the slow process of readjusting the balance.

But the women want much more than the men and boys sharing their problems – they want a solution. They went to the water company, who told them they had no money to fix the pipes. If they wanted a good water supply they should go and find a donor who would pay for the work.

Then they looked at the new (2010) Kenyan Constitution, which states that everyone has a right to clean and safe water in adequate quantities. So now they are not prepared to be fobbed off by a privatised company, and realise that they need to hold their government accountable for the actions of a contractor.

Words in a document don’t deliver safe clean water, but it gives the women confidence that this is their right, and something they won’t give up on.

As part of the Unpaid Care Work programme they have used small cameras to record the problems – the broken pipes, the long queues at the standpipes, the arguments that break out. I spent yesterday with them sorting the pictures into a story that they can take to the local council to bring home their situation. They told me, ‘with these pictures we don’t need to talk so much – they will see our problem and understand it, even without coming here’.

I believe they are determined enough to see this through.