The other evening I truly got to experience life in rural Tanzania. It is a long story and I will start from the beginning.
In the early morn’ of June 10, a water pipe in the area of our guesthouse broke and the house was out of water. It wasn’t too much of an issue since we would be at the CPAR office all day anyways, but the dishes were piling up and so were the dirty clothes. After our day at CPAR the house was still out of water. At about 5:30 or 6:00, Maggie, our guesthouse caretaker and coincidentally an UMATU member living positively with HIV, walked into our house to grab an orange four gallon bucket. It didn’t immediately occur to me what she was up to.
About 20 minutes later I heard Maggie come into the house again. I came out from my bedroom and she had the orange bucket filled with water, about to dump it into a green ten gallon shower tub. I asked if she needed a hand and she said, “Okay” from under her breath. I could see that she was trying to catch her breath and had broken a sweat. I poured the water and thanked Maggie for her goodwill, she said, “Asante” (“Thank you”) and snatched the bucket for another trip.
After another 20 minutes I heard Maggie opening the steel gate to the guesthouse. I left my room to meet her in the yard where I saw that Maggie had the orange bucket on her head (not just something you see on TV). I helped her take the bucket down from her head and carried it into the house to pour into the same green shower tub. I only walked about ten metres with the bucket and I remember thinking, “Holy [cursive] this is pretty heavy.” It must have weighed 40 pounds! I brought the bucket outside to Maggie and said, “Asante Maggie, I think that’s enough water for us.” Being that Maggie doesn’t speak English and that I was holding the bucket, my message went unacknowledged. Maggie took the bucket and went for another round.
20 minutes later another bucket came. Again I met Maggie in the yard and helped her ease the weight off of her head. I poured it into a red shower tub this time and afterwards Maggie took the bucket again and went for another trip. She was determined; the look in her eyes was unmistakeable.
Before Maggie came with our fourth bucket I had moved into the family room to fold some laundry. I selected one of my favourite albums (Loaded by Velvet Underground) on my iPod and placed it on my iPod dock. As I folded I thought, “I love this song.” Then I thought of Maggie. For her, work meant being called in on a Friday evening to fetch numerous 40 pound buckets of water so that the guests at the house would have enough water for the weekend. For me, work meant listening to my favourite tunes and folding a dozen pieces of laundry. How is that for an unequal division of labour? I became anxious. “How far does Maggie have to walk?,” I thought. I went into the yard and paced, waiting for Maggie to come back.
The sky was beginning to turn dark. It felt like an eternity before Maggie returned. Sure enough she arrived with another bucket atop her head. She began to reach over the gate to flip the latch from the inside. I rushed over to open it up for her. I crawled out (the gate is only about a five foot high door surrounded by steel above and on both sides) and helped Maggie get the weight off of her head. I carried it into our house and dumped it into the red shower bucket, which was now also full. I left the bucket inside the house this time and went out onto the patio where Maggie was waiting. I craftily mixed Swahili and English and waved my arms, palms down parallel to the ground, to tell Maggie that we certainly had enough water now (four gallons or about 60 litres). Maggie smiled and pointed across the yard to the other house in the compound. The other house is where Jolene lives, director of the Minnesota International Health Volunteers in Tanzania. “For Mama,” Maggie said.
I don’t think that there is a single word to describe what I felt when I learned that Maggie wasn’t done. I think I was mostly star-struck. “Wow. How is that even possible?” I was also downhearted – poor Maggie. Worst of all I felt guilt. I thought of my jobs at home – finance technician at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and busperson at the Lobby on York. Work? If anything is work it is carrying 40 pound buckets of water on your head! I continued to pace around the yard and waited for Maggie to return with Mama’s water.
Again I met Maggie outside of the gate. I took the bucket and she walked ahead to show me into Jolene’s house. After pouring the water I pointed to the front door and used intonation to make “again” sound like a question.
“Yea,” Maggie replied. This time I would go with her. I needed to see how this was done. I carried the empty bucket and we walked silently (language barrier) to fetch more water.
The walk was about one kilometre, maybe 750 metres. It was fairly dark, there was just enough light to see a few metres ahead of my feet. Maggie led me through the dusty, uneven terrain of Karatu town. We passed through maize fields and eventually wound up in a residential area. People were washing clothes and preparing meals. Of course everybody stared wide-eyed at the white man carrying the water bucket. Maggie said a few things to the residents in Swahili, what she said I’ll never know.
We walked alongside a burnt brick building where the path was no more than 14 inches wide and very rocky and uneven, before a two foot drop-off into the residential area described above. We hung a right behind a mud hut with a grass-thatched roof and entered another residential area. A white bucket with no lid and a hose sunk into it was clearly visible straight ahead, in front of a small plywood structure. There were young kids running and shouting “Mzungu” (person of European descent) and “Jambo” (a greeting, like we would say hello in English). An older woman sat on a stool peeling some sort of vegetables, it was too dark to tell what kind. A man came out of a hut to see what all the commotion was about.
Almost on arrival the white bucket was full. I picked it up and held it in front of my body. Maggie lightly slapped my left hand and said, “No,” she pointed to the ground. She poured the white bucket into the orange one, then pointed to the empty white bucket and said, “For me.” I sat on the orange bucket and held the hose to fill the white bucket while Maggie went into the plywood structure to turn on the water tap. I thought I was there to relieve Maggie, I couldn’t believe that she still wanted a bucket! As the bucket filled, Maggie informed me that we were at her Mother’s house. I looked over to the older woman peeling vegetables, we had a friendly introductory conversation in Swahili and shared a laugh.
The white bucket filled slowly. When it was done I figured I’d give Maggie first choice on which bucket she would prefer to carry. Wrong move (you’ll soon understand why). Maggie picked the orange bucket with the lid. She coiled a piece of black fabric on top of her head. I helped her hold the orange bucket at chest height before she was to hoist it above her head. I held the bucket at the lip around the top and Maggie had her hands underneath the bucket. What happened next blew my mind. Maggie bent her knees and rested the lip of the bucket on her lower teeth. I still held the lip of the bucket but at this point I was in awe and probably not doing much to relieve the weight from Maggie’s jaw. Maggie moved one hand to the same lip that I held and proceeded to do a full-on squat and lift, just like the Olympic weightlifters do. I couldn’t believe it.
Next I lifted the white bucket and held it in front of me. “Okay let’s go,” I said.
“No,” Maggie replied. She tapped my head and said, “Come on.” A strange rush of both adrenaline and fear raced through my body. Carry that thing on my head? I quickly realized that my arms and back would be very sore if I was to carry the 40 pound bucket in front of me. Maggie knew that from experience. The white bucket had two holes at the top on either side as handles. I put my thumbs through the holes and lifted the bucket above my head.
“This is crazy!” Maggie and I both laughed aloud once I had the bucket atop my head – along with everybody else at Maggie’s Mother’s house. The kids yelped with excitement and ran circles around me. Mama watched and gave a proud chuckle. The man laughed and cheered me on.
We left the same way that we entered; Maggie led the way. She used only one hand to balance the bucket on her head. I used two hands to lift the bucket a little bit and relieve pressure from my neck. I didn’t know the correct position for the bucket. Closer to my forehead? Top of the dome? I wish I had known because it was pretty uncomfortable. Maggie seemed to be in her own, no discomfort detectable. The 14 inch wide path along the burnt brick building was a bit nerve-wracking. As we reached the first maize field Maggie was beginning to get ahead of me. “Pole pole” (po-lay po-lay – “Slowly”), I said. Maggie turned around with ease and laughed.
For the most part we both giggled the whole way back to the guesthouse, except when I had to take a break to catch my breath and stretch my neck (three times that happened – give me a break it really is harder than it looks). Maggie also stopped laughing when she heard ounces of water splash out of the bucket and land on the ground or all over me. “I’m sorry,” she said.
I tried to say, “Sorry for what? I got myself into this mess!” I don’t think Maggie understood but my laughter made it clear that I was having fun.
We got back to the guesthouse and Maggie reached her arm through the gate to open it; the bucket was still on her head. Now get this, Maggie swung the gate open and ducked down to get through the gate with the bucket still on her head! She even shooed the dogs away with her free hand! Rural Tanzanian limbo I thought. Maggie impressed me more and more each step of the way.
I of course took the bucket from my head and carried it in front of me to get through the gate (I am taller than Maggie to my credit!). I put my bucket down and helped Maggie get hers from off of her head. We entered Jolene’s and emptied the buckets; both houses were now stocked with water. Mission accomplished!
I soon realized that I was soaking wet from head to toe. Red dirt from the bottom of the bucket mixed with water to give my skin and clothes a unique ‘rustic’ look. Now you see why I probably should have had the orange bucket with a lid. I’d bet my bottom dollar that Maggie could have handled the white bucket without losing a drop. But no matter how dirty I was it was well worth it. I looked at Maggie and put my right hand over my heart and pounded a little. I made the universal sound of exhaustion. We both laughed and thanked each other for the good time.
The water journey really put things into perspective. I can look back and think of all the times that I slouched when it came to doing dishes or shovelling snow. Now I realize that that stuff is just a walk in the park. So next time you have a little nuisance of a job to do around the house, think of Maggie.