Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Gift of Water (Christmas in a Time of Cholera)

Poor, overlooked water. It is a vital for cooking pasta, rice, grains and soups, yet most recipes don't even include it in their ingredient list, instead casually mentioning the need to add water in the instructions. (This lovingly-written recipe is a notable exception.) Water is so available, so commonplace, so seemingly endless a resource. After all, what other ingredient flows directly from the kitchen tap, my dream of installing a hot fudge spigot notwithstanding?

In Zimbabwe, however, water is no longer taken for granted. Water cuts have been a feature of city life for years, most often caused not by a lack of water in the reservoirs, but by government's lack of foreign currency (or unwillingness to use the currency they have) to purchase treatment chemicals and repair broken pipes. So I was not surprised when, two weeks ago, I returned from a short holiday to find that my house had no water. Problem number 2: while I was away, the motor on my water tank had broken. Usually the tank fills with municipal water and then, when the water cuts off, I turn on the tank's motor and water begins pumping throughout the house. Problem number 3: I quickly learned it wasn't just my neighborhood without water, but the entire metropolitan area of two million people. It was unknown when water would return.

One night of no water is not too bad. You can't take a shower, but a little water is left in the toilets. There are a few emergency water bottles on hand and cold drinks in the fridge. Stir-fries or egg dishes are both possible. You can even look on the bright side - no water means that you can slack off on doing dishes and laundry.

The next day, I got my water tank fixed, but the repairman also, in a brazen maneuver, removed all of the water - this is how valuable a commodity that water has become. When I got home from work and saw what had happened, I understood why some people believe that conflict over water may spawn the
wars of the future. I was furious. And suddenly very, very thirsty. Water was scarce all over town, a town already reeling from a cholera outbreak - where would I get more? It is not ironic that the Spanish word for cholera, cólera, also means rage and anger?

Two days of no water is inconvenient. Three days of no water becomes a crisis.

I went next door to beg for a few buckets of water from a kind neighbor whose boyfriend owns a water delivery service. Near my office, I saw women with colorful plastic pails jostling for position in a queue outside a property lucky enough to have a functioning borehole (a.k.a. well). During my evening neighborhood walk, a group of professionally-dressed women, fresh from work, dashed across a busy road with cooking pots on their heads, water sloshing over the sides. Women ferrying water is a common sight in rural parts of Zimbabwe, but is something I had never seen in the part of the city where I live. Water is, of course, critical to making sadza, Zimbabwe's staple food.

The water did come back after three days, at least in some parts of the city. But many residents didn't notice - they haven't had municipal water for months and months and have come to rely on hand-dug shallow wells.

It is not a surprise that cholera has spread through the country, although no less a tragedy. The entirely preventable and treatable disease has already killed more than 1,000 people. The highly contagious bacteria is taking advantage of ideal circumstances - a perfect storm of crumbling water and sanitation infrastructure and a health system that has collapsed due to the lack of medicines and striking nurses and doctors. (I would strike, too, if my monthly salary was $5 as a result of hyperinflation.) Cholera is considered a disease of destitution because it flourishes when there is a complete breakdown of public services.

What is it like to live in a city with a cholera epidemic? The first thing you notice is that no one wants to shake hands because it is one of the ways the disease can be spread. The first few days, I noticed aborted handshakes. A colleague would start moving his hand forward and then, suddenly remembering the outbreak, retract his hand, lowering his eyes with embarrassment at having to skip this common courtesy. The new trend is to ball your hand into a fist and touch wrists, or to touch elbows.

Next, you hear people talking about cooking their food thoroughly - eating fresh fruits and veggies has become a leap of faith. How many people may have touched this carrot and what if one of them had the cholera bacteria on his or her hands? And, as the number of deaths increases, almost everyone in town now knows someone (or knows someone who knows someone) who has died from the disease.

As Christmas approaches, Zimbabweans will begin heading to their rural homes to celebrate with extended family. Others will make the trek to neighboring countries to shop in the well-stocked, reasonably priced supermarkets of South Africa and Botswana. All this movement could further spread the disease. Nevertheless, if there are any people in the world who can still find joy in the holidays, despite the mounting problems facing their country and its people, it is Zimbabweans. They will share food and drink, and somehow find reasons to laugh. Me, I'll be here in Harare and, water permitting, busy cooking and baking. Happy holidays to all!