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Where's the water? Stories from Bulawayo - Page 1
Marko Phiri and Chumile Jamela,
November 2012

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A photo essay of Bulawayo residents and their daily experiences with water shortages.

Tshabalala Suburb
. . . you are a welcome visitor, until you ask to use the toilet

Take a walk in the streets of Tshabalala on any given Wednesday and you see the looks of dejection on the faces of the residents, because by Wednesday residents have been without water for four consecutive days. You see children, both boys and girls, some with small 2 litre containers, others with 5 litres, while some balance 20 litre buckets on their small heads as they move around the five boreholes in the suburb to collect water. No longer will you see them kicking around plastic balls on the streets after school. Now the boreholes have become their playgrounds. When the miracle of water finally arrives in Tshabalala, people frantically start filling up all available containers including cooking pots. They rush to clean their loos and do their laundry. They water their gardens at night, even though the municipality has outlawed the practice. "We've become night workers," says one resident. "If you don't do it at night, you are going to wake up in the morning to find dry taps and you will have to wait until Sunday for water."

Playtime for children now spent in boreholes

Mary Banda (aged 80) came to Zimbabwe in the 1960s from Malawi for 'greener pastures' with her now deceased husband. She is one of those old sweethearts who wax lyrical about the "good old days," only too happy to reminisce about "how things were better when we were growing up," a life story she gladly tells anyone who will listen. She says they had five children but all are deceased and she is left with grandchildren and great grandchildren all of whom live elsewhere. She stays with lodgers, and since she cannot go to the borehole by herself she has to rely on their benevolence for water. "But they also have their own needs," she says referring to her tenants who have a young child. When water "finally arrives" she tries to stock up. She is old school and knows Zimbabwe like the back of her hand. She says she is disturbed by the water problems and "someone must have done something for the rains to have disappeared in the country."

Jacqueline Sibanda (aged 60) has started clearing a strip of land in the unused land between Tshabalala and Tshabalala Extension for the planting season. The thunder and lightning that has threatened Bulawayo since late October has been enough to get her worked up about preparing the land to plant maize, and in her words "get water in our dams." We're now into November, and there is no sign of the coming of the rains, but she remains undaunted. Meanwhile with the water shortages people are using her small strip of land as an alfresco latrine. She says she doesn't even want to describe the heaps of human shit she finds littered here. The shit has almost persuaded her to abandon the whole enterprise of tilling the land, but she says she cannot stop because, if the heavens weep, it could mean she will get a bit of maize for mealie meal. "You actually wonder at what time do these people go and do this. When some of us are sleeping they are busy defecating in our fields. Sometimes I wish I could put traps just to fix them but I also realise that it's actually not their fault. It is this water problem."

Simba Dube (aged 36) is a vendor at Machipisa shopping centre. There is a public toilet just behind his stall where he and a number of women sell vegetables. The toilet hasn't been functioning for years now and is under lock and key. But he says that this has not stopped folks from shitting on the toilet's doorstep. It is symbolic perhaps: the logic seems to be, "this is a public toilet and we will shit here even if it is locked!" There are a number of public toilets in the suburb but Dube says none are functioning. The story is the same everywhere: they are all littered with faecal matter outside their entrances. It is worse for the vendors, he says, as the convenience of a public toilet is no longer there and he has to rush home every time he wants to answer the call of nature. "It has now become like a landline (telephone). I can only answer the phone at home and nowhere else," he quips.


Tyrine Gondwe (aged 38) is a full-time mother. Hers is one of two families who share a four-roomed house, which means the two families share a single toilet. There are six children between the two families. "It's just difficult to keep the toilet clean. Some leave the toilet soiled because there is no water to flush," Gondwe laments. These circumstances have raised tensions in the house as each parent says they cannot clean the mess left by another person's child. "It is difficult to tell children not use water in buckets that belong to the other family, and in any case it's just not right to tell these kids something like that. It's like denying them food," says Gondwe. While water experts are fond of saying that 21st century wars will be fought over water, rather than oil, domestic water wars are already being fought among Bulawayo families. "It's become a tough life, but what can I do?" she says dejectedly.

Jairos Ngwenya (aged 29) is a cleaner at a cocktail bar. Folks never seem to run out of cash, they have money to burn as they patronise the joint everyday of the week and business is brisk. But this comes at a price for Ngwenya. No running water for days on end means the pub is also affected, and the laws of necessity have meant even without running water, the pub still remains open. Just because there isn't any water doesn't mean the patrons don't shit, and Ngwenya knows this painful truth is a part of the job. "It's a tough call anyway, expecting tipplers not to piss or shit," he says rather grudgingly. He has even found human waste on urinals after some drunk defecated where others piss. "I wonder what time they do this," Ngwenya muses. I jokingly suggest that maybe one patron stands guard by the door to stop others from entering while his friend shits by the urinals? He laughs: "That's possible."

Inside a cocktail bar loo

Tshabalala anecdote: A story is told in this township about a chap who was drinking at a shebeen. He asked to use the lavatory. Like many homes here, the small toilet was crowded with drums and dishes filled with water. The chap had this terrible runny tummy. He takes forever in the loo as the belly cleans itself. When he thinks he is done, he uses some of the water to flush the toilet, but the belly rumbles again. He sits down again and the diarrhoea unleashes. This repeats a number of times, and he keeps filling up the cistern to flush. When he is done, he returns to the binge. The lady of the house enters the loo and is greeted by what the Devil must smell like. She checks the water containers and sees they are drained. The party going in the house comes to an abrupt end, as she demands to know who poured "her" water down the drain. Folks who know point to the diarrhoea guy. "Get out, I don't want to see you here again, get out," and the runny tummy is barred from the shebeen. True story as told by the streets.

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