For the vast majority of rural women in Africa, Asia and Latin America, the idea of a water tap in the home is sheer fantasy. The best they can ever hope for is a hand-pump from a nearby borehole or a tap from a catchment tank or dammed-up spring. And though this ‘improved water supply’ might be less polluted than the lake or river, for them the cleanliness of their water is much less important than the distance they must carry it. For wherever it is, they still have to fetch it; still raise to their heads, or backs, or shoulders those heavy earthenware jars, metal drums, brass pots.
Almost from the first day they walk, small girls go with their mothers and older sisters to the well or river. The tin balanced on their heads grows bigger as they grow older, starting out no larger than a fruit juice can and ending with the 20-litre pots of their mothers.
Carrying water is so much a part of their lives that it is scarcely something to grumble about. It is the distance over which they complain. In some parts of Africa women can spend up to eight hours a day collecting water. And as nearby streams and water holes dry up in the dry season so the distance they must walk lengthens.
In Upper Volta some women leave at dusk to escape the noon day sun. They sleep overnight at the well and return with the family’s water at dawn. And if the journey back is uphill it can burn up to 9O per cent of the food they consume each day. This leaves little time and energy for other things. Child care suffers, babies are starved in the womb, and the continual water-bearing can distort the pelvis of young girls making the recurrent cycles of pregnancy and childbirth even more dangerous.
Dangerous and tiring it may be, but a Kikuyu woman is proud of her strength and endurance. She carries her water on her back, balancing huge metal drum high on her shoulders and holding it in place with a leather thong looped around her forehead.
To carry a load in this way she must walk half stooped and bent over, eyes on the ground, one arm steadying the leather strap, the other consoling the baby slung tightly across her chest.
Nothing could suggest a beast of burden more strongly than this image. It does not even produce the superb deportment of the Kikuyus’ ‘inferior’ sisters in tribes whose womenfolk carry their loads on their heads. That elegant gliding walk with all the locomotion in the buttocks, the straight back and long neck are symbols of African womanhood. And its rhythm and stateliness are hallmarks of their serene attitude to heavy physical labour which is their lot.
But the Kikuyu would laugh at the idea that grace and posture are things to consider. Water is needed for the family. It is a woman’s task to fetch it. And if she can carry 25 or 30 kilos from the river at a time, she must be doing better than her sister whose neck muscles only permit her to carry ten.
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