New Internationalist

Drawers Of Water

September 1981

Click here to subscribe to the print edition. [image, unknown] new internationalist 103[image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] September 1981[image, unknown] Click here to search the mega index.

WATER [image, unknown] Seasons, health and wealth

[image, unknown]

Drawers of water
The Kikuyu women of Kenya tend to be scornful about the physical prowess of women in other Kenyan tribes. 'Kikuyu are much stronger,' they say, 'look how much water they carry.'

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.

Maggie Black

Previous page.
Choose another issue of NI.
Go to the contents page.
Go to the NI home page.
Next page.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 103 This feature was published in the September 1981 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

Never miss another story! Get our FREE fortnightly eNews

Comments on Drawers Of Water

Leave your comment


  • Maximum characters allowed: 5000
  • Simple HTML allowed: bold, italic, and links

Registration is quick and easy. Plus you won’t have to re-type the blurry words to comment!
Register | Login

...And all is quiet.

Subscribe to Comments for this articleArticle Comment Feed RSS 2.0

Guidelines: Please be respectful of others when posting your reply.

Get our free fortnightly eNews


Videos from visionOntv’s globalviews channel.

Related articles

Recently in Features

All Features

Popular tags

All tags

This article was originally published in issue 103

New Internationalist Magazine issue 103
Issue 103

More articles from this issue

New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

If you would like to know something about what's actually going on, rather than what people would like you to think was going on, then read the New Internationalist.

– Emma Thompson –

A subscription to suit you

Save money with a digital subscription. Give a gift subscription that will last all year. Or get yourself a free trial to New Internationalist. See our choice of offers.