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Bikes, Bruises And Boreholes


Bikes, bruises and boreholes
A bike ride weaves past waterpoints and grinding mills –
and reveals some salutary lessons on stamina and patience.

My feet ache, my calves are covered in bruises and sweat is pouring down my forehead at such a rate that I no longer bother to wipe it off. I am on a big, heavy, black Chinese bicycle, pedalling furiously up and down dry riverbeds and along dusty tracks, trying to keep up with Theodor, my translator. I am relieved rather than annoyed when every few minutes we have to stop to greet a friend or a colleague or simply someone that he knows. It gives me a chance to catch my breath before we set off again.

The whole journey takes us about three hours. Theodor swears to me that he can do it in 45 minutes.

I soon learn the bicycle protocol. The moment you spot a vehicle in the distance – either by a loudly honking horn or by a cloud of dust moving towards you – you manoeuvre your bike into the ditch. How some people manage to do this with huge white sacks of maize, large bundles of cassava or a couple of trussed-up chickens balanced on their bicycle racks, I will never know.

After falling once, I got off and scuttled to the side of the road whenever I saw anything remotely like a truck or pick-up approaching. I wasn’t consoled for my bruises by the fact that when I travelled in a Landrover we forced several people off balance and into the ditch.

Travelling by bike and on foot enabled me not only to view the scenery, but to stop and chat to people and to observe them going about their daily business. Wherever I went people would call out in Arabic: ‘Salaam aleikum!’ ‘Aleikum salaam,’ I would reply. I had feared that to speak Arabic would be seen as ‘political’: refugees from Southern Sudan have had the language foisted on them by the Sudanese Government in Khartoum. But most people spoke Arabic along with their own local language and the better-educated spoke English as well.

The largest groups of people there to greet me were those clustered round the waterpoint. Whatever the time of day and wherever I was in Ikafe, there was always a long patient line of plastic jerrycans, blue, green and yellow, and a crowd of women and children waiting their turn. Someone would be pumping the handle up and down vigorously to propel the jet of water into their container while the rest waited their turn.

A good pump will yield 20 litres of water – enough to fill a jerrycan – in three minutes. But a few bad ones – where the water table is low – can take an hour’s worth of pumping. One 20-litre jerrycan provides enough water for one person for one day – including drinking, cooking and washing. Children often bring their own little containers, trying to lighten some of their family’s burden. All along the road leading up to a borehole there are groups of women balancing full jerrycans on their heads and swaying gracefully on their way home.

At one point I get off the bike to try my hand at pumping. I am amazed how heavy the wooden handle is to manoeuvre and how hard I have to push to get a trickle of water to come out the other end. I give up after a few goes – much to the amusement of the assembled crowd – and a young woman takes over. She is carrying a baby in the traditional way, strapped to her back with a piece of cloth, its feet sticking out on either side of her body and its head resting on her back. She jumps up and down and water spouts out immediately. The other women laugh. The baby, amazingly, is rocked to sleep by the motion.

When people first came to the camp 18 months ago, water was a big problem. Pressure from UNHCR meant that they arrived in a hurry, before adequate water provision was made. There were not enough waterpoints and those there were often yielded only a trickle at a time.

Women had to wait, for days rather than hours, and sometimes overnight as well, to fill their jerrycans (see piecharts). This had an impact not only on the women’s time but on their relationships with their husbands.

‘At first,’ said Dominica, an elected member of the Council which represents the refugees, ‘men used to beat their wives if they took too long getting the water. They said: “why are you so slow, when other women have brought the water already?”’

Things have improved since then, but women say that they still often rise to get water at five in the morning, not returning home until the evening. Fatima Amelie, with one small daughter and another on the way, told me: ‘If you want to get water here you go in the night. If you go in the morning you come back very late. And you have to do this every day.’

Most of the boreholes – drilled by the aid agency, CARE – are 70-80 metres deep, but some have to go far deeper to reach the water-table. ‘The one in Okuyu is 130 metres – longer than a football pitch,’ I was told. These are dug by a special drilling machine. There are also ‘shallow wells’ which are dug by hand. On average, the boreholes are used by several hundred people a day, mainly refugees, but also Ugandans. It is easy to see why the water table goes down so rapidly.

When the food rations arrive, women have to walk and then to wait again. This time to have the maize ground into flour so that they can make posho.

I go with my friend Alice Abau Elia to the grinding mill nearest to her home. She is lucky; it is only a couple of kilometres away. Because I am there, we hitch a lift on a Landrover.

At the grinding mill, a line of women sit in the dirt behind the bags of maize. Each bag now has a name roughly scribbled on it. The men inside the mill – a small building with a curious contraption of tubes and pipes and chutes in the middle of it – are completely covered in white dust.

The windows are filled with thorn-covered twigs – to stop people coming in the sides and jumping the queue. ‘Often,’ says Alice, ‘these women will have to wait for three or four days and nights, just sitting here. It is a big problem. They have to leave their other duties – the children, the cooking, fetching water, the house – just to wait here. Sometimes the food they bring runs out and they have to exchange their precious maize for a few mangoes. Either that or they would go hungry.’

The mills are each managed by a Grinding Mill Committee, made up of nationals and refugees. There is a shortage of grinding mills at present. More have been requested from UNHCR and WFP, but they have still to arrive. Grinding itself is currently free for both refugees and nationals, and on a first-come-first-served basis.

I look at the faces of the women waiting in line. They are hot and tired. Some have sleeping babies strapped on their backs. They stare back at me, curiously. Then Alice explains who I am and they break into excited chatter as each explains her predicament.

‘This woman,’ says Alice, ‘has come from Northern Extension.’ That is almost at the other end of the camp and I exclaim my surprise. Alice explains patiently. ‘ There are only two good grinding mills in Ikafe and this is one of them. People walk a long way to go to the grinding mill.’

As I stare at the women waiting in the sun and later at those carrying their big bags of ground maize slowly home, my own feat in cycling to Yoyo begins to pale into insignificance.

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