40 litres before breakfast – a daily story in Malawi

Guest writer Arianna Meschia

After almost 8 years in bustling London, Arianna decided to leap into the unknown and moved to Malawi to volunteer in a secondary school because 9-5 isn’t the only way of living, despite what most might think. In her blog, Let Them Talk, Such Is Life she writes about the extraordinary stories of the people she is meeting and places she is visiting. If you’d like to know more, head to https://medium.com/let-them-talk-such-is-life or follow her on Instagram @letthemtalksuchislife

It must be 5.30am or thereabouts when I open my eyes to another noisy morning in Dindano village – the water cascading from a bucket on a woman’s head down to the 210 Lt water drum outside my window has been my alarm tune for the last six months.

The family I have been living with while volunteering in a secondary school in a remote area of Northern Malawi is made up of a mother and father, an uncle and aunt, two grandparents and eight children. They share the water from two 210 Lt water drums outside the house, which get refilled every two to three days by the incessant back and forth of women and girls heading to the nearby borehole to collect water for daily use – bathing, cooking, washing clothes, drinking. 

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A couple of times in the afternoon I have even tried carrying some myself – after one journey with a 10 litre bucket on my head I thought my neck had buried itself a couple of centimetres deep in my collarbone, and that my head was most definitely about to detach itself. Meanwhile, nine year old Gift* looked at me and laughed, balancing a 20 litre bucket on her head, apparently with no effort. So much for being a (not) strong independent (white) woman.

Girls as young as eight or nine wake up everyday before their male siblings, fathers and uncles, to tend to a wide range of house chores, one of which is collecting water, a decidedly feminine task. Before heading to school, a girl will have walked at least twenty to thirty minutes doing a couple of journeys to the borehole and back, to make sure her whole family has access to safe water for the rest of the day. By the time she sits at her desk, she will have carried anything between 20 and 40 litres of water on her head; then she will have made breakfast for her siblings, swept the floor outside the house, bathed and had a slice of bread and some tea for breakfast.

When I used to go to school, by the time I sat at my desk I had been gently awoken by my mother, found my breakfast waiting for me on the table, had eaten it and had proceeded to waste a shamefully enormous quantity of water brushing my teeth and washing my face. 

Often, girls will do another one or two journeys to the borehole in the afternoon, after coming back from school; which means on average a girl will spend around an hour a day performing the most menial of tasks, which doesn’t really add anything to her personal development and in fact keeps her away from homework or study time. 

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But far from being the remit of young girls only, collecting water is a family- and even community-wide business. Mothers, aunties, cousins and neighbours meet at the borehole in the mornings with several plastic buckets with their names written on them  – which makes it a very social place, where the latest news and gossips are shared. 

It’s not completely uncommon to see a boy or a young man fetching water, but that normally happens if no woman or girl is available to do it, which is in itself quite rare. Boys tend to feel embarrassed about having to perform such a “girly” task, but when I spoke to some of my students about why this was, they couldn’t quite put their finger on the reasons behind their embarrassement – “It’s just our culture”, they said, “It’s the way it is”. 

Dindano and the surrounding villages are lucky in that the ratio of boreholes per village is fairly high, but it’s not unlikely for women to have to queue up to an hour, which in most cases means girls will miss the beginning of the school day, and might give up going altogether – Malawian schools, especially at secondary level, are very strict on punctuality and might send students back home if they are late. 

Thus water, or the lack of it, is not only a gender-based issue, but also a generational one, which has a very real impact on the growth and development of young girls – many times during my stay at Dindano I offered some of the girls in my family to help with homework or suggested we do some reading together, and was met by “After I have fetched water” as an answer. 

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Nowadays, many villages do have boreholes providing safe water to drink. However there are still many communities, especially in the more mountainous regions, that rely on fetching water from rivers or streams, something which is not necessarily deadly in itself, but can and does result in the spreading of water borne diseases such as dissentery and cholera, which claim thousands of children’s lives every year. [1] 

Luckily though, not all hope is lost, at least in Dindano and the surrounding communities. In the last six months, Waterboard, a government run organisation, has made two surveys of the area around Dindano, and rumours have it that they might look at building piping and bringing water to every household in the near future. With elections impending next May, people are very hopeful that things might move quickly, as local and national governments scramble to keep people’s favour and win their votes.

Patson*, who I live with, rubs his hands in expectation and laughs wholeheartedly at the prospect of having water running out of a tap. “If it happens, I’m going to rebuild my house completely! Just imagine –water coming out of tap in my kitchen!”

[1] http://www.wateraid.org/where-we-work/malawi

*names have been changed for privacy reasons