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The Bore Hole: An Essay

What is clean water worth?

We waited for signs of water. For three days, my mother and I had been sitting together, anxious, fidgety, more and more aware of the uneasy tension between us. After two and a half weeks, the bore hole had reached a depth of 89 feet but no water. Ninety-three feet, nothing. The bore hole men, as they were known in the village, shifted about nervously; the villagers, too, were restive and had begun to blame me for what appeared to be a failing project.

“This bore hole business is an unnecessary trouble. It’s just a waste of money,” my mother snapped at me with exasperation. “Why do we need a well when we were perfectly happy drawing water from the river?”

Then, at 98 feet, the small orange plastic bucket was lifted from the bore hole and emptied. Out came a thick ochre soup. The next bucket was even more promising. Morris, the man in charge of the project, grabbed the climbing rope and lowered himself into the narrow shaft. A few moments later, he shinnied out of the well, the bottom of his trousers soaking wet. “We have indeed found water,” he burst out, laughing loudly. I cautiously bent over the edge and looked down. I saw only darkness.

We ran to the shade tree where my mother and two of her neighbors were seated, picking beans. “Mamas,” Morris shouted, “we have finally found water.” The women shouted their approval, then reverently lowered their heads into their arms and murmured appreciative prayers. “Now that you have found water the food we eat can settle nicely in our stomachs,” sighed one of the neighbors. My mother smiled, the creases around her eyes softened, and she gave thanks: “The Lord is good; he hears our prayers.”

Equipped with only a machete, a hammer, a hoe and a plastic bucket, the bore hole men had to climb down on a knotted rope into an unbraced shaft approximately 3 feet wide.

Morris had never dug this deep in his seven years of well-digging; in his previous well he had reached water at 58 feet. Equipped with only a machete, a hammer, a hoe and a plastic bucket, the bore hole men had to climb down on a knotted rope into an unbraced shaft approximately 3 feet wide. Lowering themselves into darkness, without even the aid of a miner’s light, they descended to a depth equivalent to a 10-story building. As they dug deeper the air became thinner, the heat unbearable, and the shrinking disk of sky above became invisible. Too long down the hole and the digger would suffocate.

News of water’s discovery passed quickly from village to village, and soon neighbors began arriving at my mother’s homestead. A few looked down the well to try to see the water with their own eyes; the others, afraid they might fall into the hole, simply trusted the truth of our euphoria and joined our celebrations—drinking chai and rehearsing the mounting anxieties of the last three days when many of us had nearly lost hope.

The project had been my idea. I’d been thinking about it for the last four years, since I had begun hearing numerous reports from my mother about her friends and neighbors suffering from typhoid—an inflammation and ulceration of the intestines that results from drinking water contaminated by bacteria. Its victims suffer from acute fevers that dissipate their energy and weakens their immune system. Normally, antibiotics cure it. But since many people in the village can’t afford the tablets, physicians usually prescribe six weekly injections of antibiotics that are, apparently, cheaper or at least easier to come by. Every time I called my mother, she would tell me that she or someone she knew was being treated for typhoid.

I was becoming alarmed. I’d grown up here in the 1970s and early ’80s, a small village of about 1,700 people 25 miles northwest of Lake Victoria. As a child, I had understood typhoid to be a disease contracted by refugees from Uganda fleeing Idi Amin’s regime and living under unsanitary conditions in overcrowded camps. It was not a disease of people like my mother who enjoyed relatively comfortable lives. Our disease was malaria, and although it took a toll on our bodies, we endured it patiently because we believed there was nothing we could do.

Typhoid was different, and I found it hard to believe that it had caused something of a minor plague in my village. So I decided to organize the digging of a well. I was going to be useful on this trip back to Kenya. I was going to do more than gather material for my own historical research, as I had on previous trips. I was going to help eliminate this disease; this time, I was going to give back to the village and show the villagers that I understood their problems. As the flight attendant welcomed us to Nairobi, I told myself to remember what I tell my students in my African history courses at Williams College: Try to understand the Africans on their own terms.

But the well was a hard sell. My mother was convinced that it was a waste of money—I would have to shell out 320,000 shillings ($4,000), money that she could use to buy goats and cows, grow more maize and beans, or simply tuck away in a locked suitcase in her bedroom so she could enjoy sleeping next to it every night. I talked up the idea for several months, but my mother displayed no interest. Eventually, I got my siblings to join in the harangue, but to no avail.

“You children are interfering with my life,” she would answer dismissively.

To her and many other folks in the village, it was not worth it. No one, they thought, should have to pay that much money for water that can be found in rivers or that can easily be collected at home when it rains.

We remained at this impasse until one of my brothers casually mentioned to her that digging a well would mean that she could get electricity hooked up to her house. Electric pumps for wells were more efficient than manual ones, and this meant she could justify the wiring of her house. She liked the idea of electricity. If digging a well meant that she would have electricity, then she was all for it.

Morris and his team of three young men started digging a few weeks before I arrived in June. After surveying the grounds, they decided to dig the well in the front yard. It was pure guesswork. The men had no scientific equipment to help them determine how deep the water table is; their only criteria was to avoid areas near sewage, pit latrines or graves.

Since their village was about 30 miles away, they could not afford to return home every day, so my mother provided them with a place to sleep in a small, one-room mud house behind the main house. Once I peeked through the window and saw two twin beds. Later, when talking with my mother’s housekeeper, Rachel, I asked how two grown men could fit into a twin bed. She looked at me and laughed, letting me know how absurd my question was.

“Oh, they just sleep. They are very tired anyway, and when their stomachs are nicely filled with food, they don’t even blink until the cocks crow.”

For Rachel, Morris and his teammates were in fact living in relative luxury. Here, at my mother’s house, they had a bed and a mattress to sleep on, while in their homes they were probably sleeping on papyrus mats spread over mud floors plastered with dried cow dung. Here they were given three good meals a day and, at the end of their stay, they would get paid what Rachel saw as a exceptionally good wage.

I spent nearly a week watching them dig. To pass time, they listened to a European Cup match, interrupted when the person in the hole shouted that the tiny orange bucket was full of dirt. Immediately, the three other men would haul up the bucket and inspect the contents to see if there was any moisture.

It seemed strange to me that no neighbors stopped by, though this was the kind of activity that would normally attract people from the nearby villages (my mother’s is the only bore hole within 20 miles). When I asked my mother about the absence of visitors, she replied that many people had stopped at the site during the first two weeks, but as the diggers dug deeper and deeper and no water was found, people gave up and stopped visiting.

“People are afraid of coming near it because they might fall into the hole,” she answered matter-of-factly. She herself hadn’t been near the hole for a week though it was only yards away. Rachel, however, gave the infrequent visits from neighbors a more interesting explanation. “You know some people have evil eyes,” she said one evening as I was helping her cook supper, “and since the bore hole men can’t find water, some people are afraid of stopping at the site because they are afraid of being suspected of witchcraft.” I laughed at Rachel’s remark and dismissed it as crazy. She laughed back and told me that I had lived in America too long. We continued cooking in silence, stopping repeatedly to chase the chickens out of the kitchen.

When I was growing up in the village, accusations of people having “evil eyes” were fairly common. Anybody involved in an industry that involved chance—potters, brick makers, quail trappers—all were very careful to keep women at bay. It was always women who were suspected of having “evil eyes,” mostly very old women, but also menstruating women.

In the meantime, despair had begun to descend upon my mother’s homestead.

“It must be a lot of money to do this kind of thing,” neighbors commented, hoping of course to find out exactly how much I was wasting on a useless bore hole. My mother resented the neighbors’ curiosity since she was to blame for allowing me to sponsor the project in the first place. In a way, my mother, like many of these neighbors, never considered the well to be that important, never felt that clean water was essential to the prevention of typhoid. The well was simply an annoyance to her or, at best, a means of getting electricity into her house.

But the neighbors’ curiosity continued unabated, especially when the Indian merchant who owned the local hardware store delivered, day after day, lorries of construction material: cement, culverts, bricks and sand. As the workers unloaded the lorry, the neighbors marveled at how much money I had paid.

“How much is a bag of cement these days?” one of them would ask suggestively. “Don’t you think that so and so’s bricks are cheaper than the Indian’s bricks?”

One afternoon I decided to visit a neighbor, a former primary school teacher. As I was traipsing through fields, Monica, a robust woman in her 30s, accosted me.

“Have the men found the water yet?” she yelled from the garden where she was picking beans.

“No,” I yelled back.

“You should have given me all the money that you are wasting on that well. I could fetch water from the river for the whole village until I die,” she yelled and laughed as I walked on.

When I arrived at Leah’s, our neighbor, I found her seated in her front yard cleaning pumpkin leaves to cook for supper. A trim woman in her 50s, Leah had been sick with a high fever for the last week and had not been able to stop by and see the well.

I started to see myself as one of those foreign development agents I had often seen forcing foreign ideas on indifferent local people. but I tried to remind myself that I was not a foreigner.

“How do you feel?” I asked.

“The fever is gone but I am still quite weak.” She had recently gone to the local clinic for treatment, so I asked her what the physician had told her. “He gave me malaria tablets and a typhoid injection.”

“It looks like many people are getting typhoid these days. I wonder what is causing all this typhoid?”

She answered without acknowledging my irony. “It is just disease. It is just sickness. The world is changing, and more and more people are getting sick. Sickness just happens. That is why we have typhoid here in our land,” Leah said self-assuredly.

I told her that I needed to get back home and help Rachel cook for the bore hole men.

“Lord, Lord, are they still digging? It must be a lot of money, and it is very hard work, too. Lord, Lord, bless us. What has this child done to us?” she shook her head and looked at me.

“Don’t you think that the clean water from the well is good for you? Didn’t the physician tell you to boil river water so you don’t get typhoid?”

“Yes, sometimes we boil our drinking water, but we still get typhoid every now and then.”

“Maybe the bore hole water will help,” I said.

“Bore hole water or river water is all the same to me; it all comes from the dirty ground.”

As days went by and the water table seemed to retreat with every bucketful of dirt, as the village folks glumly commiserated the high cost of the well, I too began to doubt the feasibility of the project. I, too, wondered whether I should simply have given the money to the villagers. Were the villagers indeed right? Did they simply have a better understanding of their daily needs than I did, coming from an easy middle-class life in the U.S.? I began to suspect that I had failed to understand them on their own terms. After all, the money I was spending on the well could, as one of the villagers told me, feed the whole village for two years. I started to view myself as one of those foreign development agents I had often seen forcing foreign ideas on indifferent local people. But I reminded myself that I was not a foreigner, that these are my people, that I was their daughter and that I had to help because I had the means. These people, my people, needed clean water to control typhoid.

And I owed them. Many of these neighbors had once helped me beyond their means. Before I left for the U.S. in the mid-1980s, several members of my village had gathered for a harambee, or fundraising, and donated 2,000 shillings each ($50 at the time) to help with the expenses of the journey. I was grateful. The well was one way for me to thank neighbors who had given up the little they had to support my education. Yet these selfless, generous men and women were now resisting my help. They, my mother included, failed to see the health benefits of the well; all they cared about was the money. I felt slighted, annoyed, and wondered why literate people, retired teachers like Leah, refused to see the relationship between contaminated water and intestinal diseases like typhoid.

Their fatalism, particularly my mother’s, baffled me. She has always been selfless and loving to all her children. Widowed when still young (I was only 5 years old when my father died), my mother worked hard, sacrificing the pitifully small income she made selling maize, beans and tea to send us to school. She had always valued education, yet now she didn’t seem to care for our supposedly enlightened ideas. Why the willful ignorance?

The sense of relief once the diggers struck water was palpable. From that point on, the work was relatively easy. To keep the well secure, they laid in the culverts, set up meshed wire to sieve the water, installed a pump and covered the top with more hard wire that they plastered with cement. The bore hole was ready to go. Before I left Kenya, I paid the electric company to install the electricity to pump the water. A year later, we are still waiting. The electric company is government-owned, and someone—my mother, me, perhaps one of my siblings—will probably have to give them “something small.” We call it a bribe here in the U.S.; they call it “sugar” or “tip” in Kenya.

My mother paid Morris and his partners 25,000 shillings (about $300), so each one of them got about $75 for three weeks’ work. Morris and my mother had agreed on this amount, and I had been told by several people in the village that this was actually a very good wage. Unconvinced, I argued with my mother about the low wages, but she remained adamant, insisting, “If we give them more money, they will begin to expect a similar amount from other people who might not have a ‘rich’ daughter like you in America.” I understood her point, but after watching these men work so hard, for so long, under such perilous conditions, I felt they deserved more.

Just before they left, when my mother was not watching, I slipped each of them 1,500 shillings (about $20). I squeezed the money in their palms, in the surreptitious manner in which a tip is given, telling myself that a tip is informal and discretionary, and that they could not use it as an excuse to boost their wages and make it harder for people to afford their services. Yet “something small” is supposed to simply be that—not $20, a fortune to most people in the village. I couldn’t stop thinking that the $20 should actually have been part of their pay. The price they asked had simply been based on an assessment of their previous well. But Morris was afraid of being viewed as unreliable, and, honest as he is, did not ask for more money. To my mind, then, this “sugar” was a way of paying them what they earned without compromising their reputation or my mother’s.

Someday, electricity may be installed and my mother and her neighbors won’t feel that I wasted money that they could have put to better use. Perhaps the clean water will reduce the number of typhoid infections. Perhaps it won’t. Most people near my mother’s village don’t have access to clean water, and as long as my mother and her neighbors visit them and eat their food and drink their water, they will still be susceptible to infection. Unless, of course, my mother and her neighbors refuse the food and water. But there is little chance of that. Poverty, habit, fatalism and the triumph of the short term over the long term—all these may in the end prove stronger than a well-meaning hole in the ground.

Kenda Mutongi grew up in the Maragoli community in Kenya. An associate professor of history at Williams College, she is the author of Worries of the Heart: Widows, Family and Community in Kenya.