I should not have drank that cup of water, thought Sanu, as she stared into the still-dark morning sky. She had been holding her sides, crossing her legs, twisting her hair for the past two hours. Sanu looked at her mother and her older sister peacefully sleeping on the mat on the floor of their modest house. I should have listened to them. They told me not to drink water before going to bed. But I couldn’t help it, I was so thirsty. After waiting for a few more minutes, Sanu quietly crept out of the house.
Sanu’s mother had warned her not to leave the house when it was dark out, not even to go to the toilet. Lately, in the crowded slum of Bamako, there was news of young girls being kidnapped and sold to the sex trade. Sanu is a twelve-year-old confident girl. She had imagined countless times of how she would defend herself if a man were to drag her away from her home. She would kick the man, punch him, twist his arms, and yell at the top of her lungs. Sanu had even practiced these moves with her friend, Amadou, a scrawny ten-year-old boy who lived two houses down the narrow street.
Sanu tried her best to walk quietly to the back of the house. However, it had rained earlier and the streets were wet. The gutters that take away sewage from her house, and hundreds of other houses in that area, were filled with dingy putrid water. Her thin sandals barely kept her foot dry and with every step she took, her sandals let out soft tat tat tats. She reached the toilet, well more like the back wall of her house that is cornered by two rusty aluminum fences. Her mother said that it’d be a while before she could get a large piece of cloth to hang from the fences to create a door to the toilet. No one had thrown out a big enough cloth yet.
There were old pee stains on the wall.
“Amadou” she whispered to herself. “I told him to aim at the ground, not the wall.”
Sanu took a look around her. She squatted and relieved herself. For those of you who ever held your pee for twelve hours, you would know how hard and long it is to actually relieve yourself. Sanu squatted until her thighs began to burn and yet she was not finished. Her being worried about being caught did not make things easier either. When she was finally done, she stood up. Sanu might have stood up too quickly, considering she lost her balance and fell to the ground, hitting her head on the aluminum fence, creating a loud and resonating BANG! The sound echoed long enough for Mama to wake up from her sleep and run out of the door towards Sanu.
“What are you doing?” Sankolo harshly whispered at her daughter. “What did I tell you about going out at night?”
“But it’s morning, Mama,” whispered Sanu.
“Don’t talk back to me.” Sankolo was no longer whispering. She was staring down at Sanu. “Don’t you know it’s dangerous around here when it’s dark? Have you not listened to me at all?”
“But Mama, I really had to go. If I didn’t, I would have gone all over myself in the bedroom.”
“If you really had to go, you wake me up or Bintu. Never go alone in the dark. It’s too dangerous.” She glared at her daughter with piercing but caring eyes. “What is that you are sitting on?”
Sanu had not noticed that she fell on something and squished it. When she got up, she let out a gasp and began to squeal, “ewwwww.”
“Ssshh,” said her mother. “You’ll wake the neighbors up. Is that yours?”
“No, I didn’t poop. I just came out to pee. It was here when I got here. It must have been Amadou’s. He came by yesterday and went to the toilet for a long time. It must have been him!” pled Sanu.
“All right. At least he remembered to do it in a plastic bag this time. I have to talk to him. It’s not nice to leave bags of crap lying around. They need to be thrown in the ditch.”
“I tell him that every time he goes to the toilet here. He just says that it’s too long of a walk to throw out one bag of poop. If he collects more, he’ll walk to the ditch,” Sanu said, feeling relieved that she’s no longer in trouble and that her mother’s anger was on Amadou.
“He said that?”
“I will have a word with him. All right, get inside and clean up. We have to start breakfast soon.”
Morning broke and the city began to fill with the everyday hustle and bustles. The air was getting hotter, thicker, and stickier. Already, Sanu’s shirt was sticking to her back, and beads of sweat formed on her forehead. As she stepped outside her house, she was greeted with sounds of tat tat tats as slum dwellers left their houses to their spot of peddling. Some sold old clothing that were salvaged from garbage dumps; some sold stolen jewelry and cameras. Sanu’s mother worked as a food peddler on the city streets where school children would buy snacks on their way to and from school. Sanu envied the school children. They wore crisp white shirts and shoes that covered their feet from the mud and raw sewage that flowed through the gutters.
“Come on, Sanu” said Bintu, “we have to go get water.”
Sanu and Bintu carried two big plastic containers to the water pump. Along the twenty-minute walk, Bintu chatted with the other women on the street. Sanu wished that Amadou could help her fetch the water. Carrying a filled container always hurts her back and arms. But Amadou would not come home until late afternoon. He was off with his older brother to beg on the streets where the rich worked.
As always, there was a long line at the water pump. Sanu and Bintu took their place at the back of the line. Bintu chatted with the women around her about the latest development of a popular soap opera that she would sometimes watch from a TV outside a grain shop. As she chatted, Sanu began to daydream.
It’s morning and it’s my first day of school. Mama had hung my crisp white shirt and blue pleated skirt on the door for days now. She even shined my new black shoes for me, which are now neatly placed by my school bag. Mama was so proud to have me go to school, that everyday, she would check my shirt that it’s still crisp and that my shoes were still shiny. Bintu is making breakfast. Ever since we got running water in our house, Bintu would wake up early, take a shower, and make breakfast for all of us, and head into town to work for a fashion designer. Mama doesn’t need to push her food cart and sell anymore. She just cooks everything inside the house and goes to our front porch and open shop. Amadou knocks on our door. He has never looked so good in his school uniform and short haircut. We were walking to school together, like the rest of the children in this city.
“Come on! What’s taking so long?” yelled out an impatient woman on the line. She had broken Sanu’s daydream. “We’ve been waiting here for fifteen minutes. What are you doing up there?”
“It’s not working,” said a woman near the pump. “There’s no water coming out.” Groans and gasps broke out; concerned looks were on everyone’s face. Everyone was in disbelief of how their once reliable water pump has suddenly stopped giving them water.
“How am I going to cook today?” cried out a desperate woman.
“What will my children drink today?” yelled another woman.
Everyone was heading towards the pump to see what was going on and tried to make the pump spill water. Impatience turned into concern, which turned into fear. Women and children were asking questions that no one had an answer to. Sanu and Bintu peered through the crowd to see a horde of women trying to turn knobs on the pump, lift the lever, check to see if it was clogged.
“Take my hand Sanu,” said Bintu, “we’re leaving.”
Sanu was dumfounded. Leaving? Without water? But Bintu was not leading her home. She was leading her to a stream that was a few miles away from the slum.
The stream was dominated by cattle and goats. The farmers who brought their animals to the city had brought their herds here to drink the water. There were women and children bathing in the water and doing laundry. Some were filling their canisters up with the stream’s water.
Bintu found a discarded cup on the shore and washed it in the stream. She began to scoop up the water and fill her canister in silence.
“We’re drinking that?” asked Sanu.
“We have no choice. If it’s safe for the goats and cattle, it’ll be safe for us too,” answered Bintu. “Sanu, before you were born, I drank this water because there were no water pumps in the slums. It was only until some foreigners came to visit our slum that they built a pump for us. We lived off of this stream. We can get by with it today too. Don’t worry, I’ll boil the water before we drink it.”
Sanu swallowed down a tear. She never knew that Mama and Bintu had to drink this water before. She always thought that they had clean water from the pump. Sanu began to scoop water with her hands into the canister that she had. As she was stepping into the stream, she accidentally trampled upon cow dung. It was hidden underneath the murky water.
“Ewwwwww” cried Sanu.
“Just wash your feet in the stream,” said Bintu. “Get your water over there, away from the cattle,” she said as she pointed to a nearby nook down the stream a bit. Sanu walked towards the nook, carefully avoiding the cow and goat feces that lay by the shore. She stooped down and filled her canister with water.
Walking back to their house took more than an hour. The weight of the canister did not allow Sanu to walk without stopping for rest. Along the way, they met the women who were at the water pump. They were heading to the stream as well. Bintu talked to one of the women and was told that the government had shut down the pump last night. The government was told that the well water in the area had been polluted with a broken sewage line and that it was unsafe for people to drink the well water. They posted signs up, but the rain must have washed them away. Besides, the people wouldn’t have been able to read the signs, considering most were illiterate.
“When will we get water again?” asked Bintu.
“They don’t know. They don’t know how long it will take to clean the water. If they’re even going to do anything about it,” answered the woman.
“Why do you say that?”
“They don’t care about us. We’re slum dwellers. The city folks get to drink water bottles. The water they have in their houses come from the government water facility which they can afford to pay every month. We don’t pay the government. We just pay Habib each week to maintain the pump. He’s gone now. Some say that he knew well in advanced that the government was shutting the pump down. He took the money that he got and ran out of town last night. The government man that came to see the pump this morning said that there’s nothing more he could do. The government has no money to fix the pump yet. We just have to get our water from the stream.” With a disdainful sigh, the woman said her goodbyes and left for the stream.
When Sankolo came home, Bintu told her what happened to the water pump. Immediately, Sankolo’s face became even more tired and worrisome. This meant that she will have to get up earlier to walk to the stream, fetch the water, and cook the snacks to be sold on her food cart. Sanu and Bintu will also have to leave the house early in order to fetch the water for breakfast. Some days, they will have to go to the stream three or four times just so that they can wash their clothes, wash themselves, get enough cooking and drinking water. During those days, both Sanu and Bintu would go to bed with aching backs and limbs.
* * * * *
Sanu woke up with chills. She never felt so cold. It was still dark and Mama and Bintu were sound asleep. Sanu wrapped herself up with the thin blanket that normally lies on the foot of her mat. She shivered silently. When Bintu came to wake Sanu up so that they could go for their water run, she was shocked to see Sanu wrapped up in her blanket, shivering. She immediately called for Mama.
“Sanu, what’s wrong? Talk to me,” Sankolo urged Sanu in a gentle tone.
Sanu couldn’t open her eyes, no matter how hard she tried. Trying to lift her arms, her muscles would not respond except for piercing her body with aches. She was weak.
“Bintu, go to Aunt Jikuru’s house and ask her to come here. Tell her that Sanu is sick.” Bintu obeyed and quickly left the house.
Sanu was embarrassed and scared. She had never felt so defeated, so useless. She was also scared that her mother would be angry with her. The sun has already come up and Sankolo was not yet dressed to go food peddling. She thought that because of her, Mama had to skip work and that Bintu would have to fetch water all by herself.
Hurried footsteps entered the room. Sanu felt someone kneeling down besides her and placing a cold hand on her forehead.
“Sankolo, she’s burning up. Here,” said Aunt Jikuru, who has been Sankolo’s childhood friend and a good aunt to Sanu and Bintu. “Boil her some of these herbs and let her drink. That should bring the fever down.”
Throughout the morning, Sankolo frequently kneeled down beside her daughter and checked her temperature. She wiped Sanu’s sweat away and told her that things will be all right. Bintu had to go to the stream three times already to get water, while Mama boiled the herbs. When the medicine was ready, Sankolo encouraged Sanu to get up and drink it. Sanu groaned, she could not lift herself up from the mat. Bintu had to cradle Sanu in her arms as Mama poured the medicine down her mouth. Sanu gulped at the bitter medicine trying hard to keep it down, but failed. She vomited all over herself as tears ran down her cheeks.
What is happening to me? Sanu thought. What did I do wrong?
Later in the evening, Amadou came to visit. He did not know that Sanu was sick and wanted to see if she wanted to play soccer with him. Sankolo shooed him away. No matter how much Amadou begged to see Sanu, Sankolo would not let him in the house. Desperate, Amadou crept to the side of the house and peered through a dirty glass window. Sanu was lying on the floor, covered in blankets. He tapped on the window and whispered her name. Sanu tried to lift her head, but was only capable of moving it slightly. He tapped and called for her again. She did not move. Disappointed, he returned home.
Sanu woke with sounds of voices and tat tat tats. Someone was carrying her in the middle of the night. She could feel the cool night breeze running through her hair, and the rapid heartbeat of her carrier.
“I’m sorry, Sankolo,” said Aunt Jikuru. “The herbs are not enough. She needs to see a doctor.”
“I know,” replied Sankolo. “I don’t know how much the doctor will charge me, but I have some money saved from my food peddling. I just hope he’ll be able to help her.”
“Here, take this.”
“Jikuru, I can’t. I won’t be able to pay you back.”
“It’s okay. You can pay me back when you can.”
“Thank you, Jikuru.”
They came to a stop.
“It’ll be faster if you and Salif go to the doctor. I can take care of Bintu and Amadou,” said Aunt Jikuru.
“But I want to go too! I can help!” cried Amadou.
“Sanu will be all right, Amadou. Stay with Bintu. She needs help getting the water for tomorrow,” said Salif, Amadou’s older brother, in a soothing voice.
Sanu felt a small hand grab hers and squeezed it tight.
“Sanu, get better. I’ll be home waiting,” whispered Amadou.
Sanu felt her head was getting heavier and she was losing her senses. Sounds were muffled; her body numbed, and smells vanished. Darkness settled upon her.
* * * * *
A few days passed and Bintu was giving Sanu her antibiotics every six hours. Sanu was well enough now to walk around the house and eat some rice porridge with okra sauce without vomiting. Amadou came to visit everyday, recounting how he was woken up in the middle of the night by Bintu, and how Salif had to carry her to the doctor’s office as he ran behind them. He also complained how hard it was to help Bintu and Aunt Jikuru fetch the water from the stream three times a day.
“I’d rather go out begging,” he would conclude his stories.
Sanu enjoyed her times with Amadou and Bintu. They both were extra nice to her. She hadn’t seen Mama much though. Lately, Sankolo would come home late in the night and leave early in the morning. Bintu said that Mama found a second job cleaning offices, and that’s why she’s rarely home. Bintu didn’t have to say it, but Sanu knew. Mama had to get a second job in order to pay for her medicine and to pay back Aunt Jikuru. Guilt-ridden, she tried to help around the house as best she could. She made her bed every day, swept the floors, washed the dishes. Her biggest accomplishment, she thought, was when she found a trampled blanket on a street. She washed it and hung it up by the two aluminum fences of her toilet. Now, her family can go to the bathroom with privacy.
“Bintu, let me go with you to the stream and help you get water. I feel well enough for the walk,” said Sanu, hoping to get out of the house.
“Sorry Sanu,” her sister replied, “but Mama and the doctor said that you need to get better. They said that you need to stay in a clean place until you get better all the way. The stream was how you got sick in the first place.”
“The stream? How?” asked Sanu.
“I don’t really know exactly, because I couldn’t understand some of the words that Mama used. But she said that you had something called Lepto-, Lepto-something,” she paused as she squinted her right eye, meaning she was thinking hard, “Leptospirosis. That’s it. That’s what you had.”
“How did I get Lepto – spi –rosis?” asked Sanu as she tried to sound out the word.
“Mama said that people get that disease when they drink bad water or when they touch bad water. She suspected that the water we got from the stream was probably polluted by animal feces that had the bacteria that caused you to be sick. Either we didn’t boil the water long enough or you had a cut on your leg when you went into the water. That’s how the bacteria got in and how you got sick.”
“But, if we still need to get water from the stream, wouldn’t that mean you and Mama can get sick too?”
“Maybe. But we have no choice. The stream is the only place we can get water. The pump has not been fixed yet. Don’t worry though, Amadou and I walk an extra mile upstream, away from the cattle and goats. The water we get now should be better than before.”
As Bintu and Amadou left their house to make their two-hour long water errand, Sanu was left with the responsibility of cooking dinner. There weren’t a lot of options. There was rice for porridges and peanuts and sweet potato leaves for the sauce. Aunt Jikuru came by every evening to check up on Sanu. She would also bring a bagful of vegetables and grains, and sometimes meat for Sanu’s family. Aunt Jikuru had just got a new job down at a wet market. Usually there’s something left over from the market, and she would share her groceries with Sanu. Sanu was so thankful to have a sister like Bintu, a mother like Sankolo, a friend like Amadou, and an aunt like Jikuru.
* * * * *
Months passed by and Sanu regained her health. Bintu worked with Mama to help sell snacks. Mama said that working two jobs exhausted her and she needed Bintu to help with the business. To Sanu’s delight, Amadou was now living with them, which meant that he could help her with the water errands. Salif found a job in a coalmine, a long way from the city. He comes back every two months to visit, and to bring money to Amadou. The money helped pay for food and household necessities, but it was not enough to pay for school. Every morning, as the two children walked towards the stream, Amadou and Sanu would stare at the students walking to their schools.
“I like math,” announced Amadou to Sanu as they passed by their old non-functioning water pump. “Solving problems with numbers is fun.”
“What do you know about math?” asked Sanu, thinking that Amadou has no idea what he’s talking about.
“Yeah, like what?”
“I know how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide! I learned it from the old storekeeper down the street. When you were sick and your mother wouldn’t let me in the house, I would go and talk to him. He would sometimes give me candy. But most of the time he taught me math.”
“Why did he do that?”
“Because he wanted to see if I could do it. He said that if I was good, he’ll hire me to help with his shop when I get older.”
“But in order to work in a shop, you need to know how to read.”
“Why?” asked Amadou. “I just take money from the customer and give them the right change. I don’t need to read anything.”
“Yeah you do,” protested Sanu. “You need to at least read the labels on the boxes of the stuff you are selling. You need to know what you are selling. What if someone comes in and ask for something specific? Don’t you think you need to be able to read in order to find whatever the customer is looking for?”
Grudgingly, Amadou agreed with her.
“I wish we both could go to school. Then we both would know how to read. You can help the customers find their stuff, and I can take their money. We’ll make a good team,” said Amadou thoughtfully.
“Yeah, we would.” Sanu smiled.
For several days, Sanu and Amadou would talk about how they would open shop one day and make lots of money. They fought over what they would sell, what kind of customers they wanted in their store, and what kind of music to play on the radio while they worked. Their talks about their future store would be their usual water errand conversation. Every day, she would feel hopeful and truly believed that their store would become a reality. Sanu would always remember her days with Amadou as the best childhood days of her life.
* * * * *
It started with a headache. Amadou refused to get out of bed one day because of the throbbing headache that he had. It was so bad that he would flip and flop on his bed like a fish out of water. Sometimes he would cry silently as he tried to hide his tears behind his blanket. Sanu ran to the wet market that day to see Aunt Jikuru.
“Sanu, I can’t leave my work right now,” said Aunt Jikuru. “But here is some money. Go to the herb store and tell them you need something to cure a headache. They’ll give you a packet of herbs for you to boil. Give it to Amadou. I’ll come by when I get out of work.”
When Sanu got home, Amadou was nowhere to be found. Panicking, Sanu called for him and searched through the house. Silence.
BANG! The resonating sound of the aluminum fence hit hard by something rang throughout the house. Sanu rushed outside to the toilet. Amadou was lying on the floor, struggling to get up.
Sanu managed to carry Amadou back into the house and put him to bed. His body was burning and he could barely walk.
“I’m gonna boil some medicine for you, Amadou. Stay here and try to rest.”
Sanu started to boil the water and the medicine. Every few minutes, she would peek inside her room to see if Amadou was sleeping. He was lying on the mat, wrapped up in his blanket. She could hear him cry. Not wanting to make him feel embarrassed, she let him cry as she tended to the medicine. Amadou was better at taking the medicine than Sanu. He drank most of the herbed drink in the cup without throwing up. Hours passed and his headache was no longer severe. His fever, however, worsened.
Aunt Jikuru came by later that evening and the next day. She brought herbs to have Sanu boil for Amadou. It was supposed to bring the fever down. But Amadou was still burning up. Bintu and Sankolo were getting more and more worried with each passing day. They finally put together some money to call Salif at the coal mine he was working in. When he got the news, he immediately left work to make his three-day journey to see Amadou.
When Salif arrived, Amadou ecstatically hugged him. Salif reassured Amadou that everything would be okay. After five days, Amadou still had a fever. The herbs were not working and Sanu and her family felt desperate. They decided to pull in their money and take Amadou to the doctor. Sanu insisted on going, but was told to stay home with Bintu and Aunt Jikuru. She waited impatiently, staring outside her window, throughout the day and night.
It was two o’clock in the morning when they came home. Sanu pretended to be asleep when Salif laid Amadou down on the mat and covered him. Sanu crept towards Amadou and felt his forehead. It was still hot, but not burning. A cry was heard through the door. Sanu quietly cracked open the door to see Salif crying on Mama’s shoulder.
“I don’t know what to do. We don’t have enough,” cried Salif.
“It’s all the medicine we could afford. I thought that whatever money we gave was enough, but the doctor upped his price,” Mama said in a sullen voice. “Typhoid fever. It’s common around here. The doctor saw it as an opportunity seeing that lots of people were coming in with typhoid and needing the medicine.”
“That doctor is no good. He lied. How can a doctor not have enough medicine for his patients?” sobbed Salif.
“He said that the shipment has not come in yet. Whatever he has left, he’s selling it three times as much as what it would normally cost. He knows that people are desperate and will pay for it,” said Sankolo. “I’m sorry. But two days worth of medicine was all we could afford. Maybe he’ll get better by then. We can’t lose hope.”
Salif nodded and muffled his cry on Mama’s shoulder. Salif was only thirteen-years-old and had already lost his mother. The prospect of losing his younger brother was too much for him to bear. Sankolo pet his back as a tear ran down her face. It was the first time ever that Sanu had seen Mama cried.
Amadou’s fever was coming down. Sometimes, during the day, he was well enough to sit up on his bed and talk to Sanu. They would talk about their store, how it would be decorated, what the name would be, what they would do with the money. Amadou’s frail body seemed to disappear underneath his brother’s old t-shirt. He hadn’t been eating much, always full after the third spoonful of rice. His eyes were hallowed and his face was pail. Despite all of this, he smiled and had a hopeful face whenever they talked about the store.
It happened in the late afternoon, when Bintu and Sankolo were not yet home. Salif was out getting water as Sanu was preparing dinner.
It came from the bedroom.
Sanu opened the door and let out a shriek. Amadou was lying face down on the floor a couple of feet from the mat. As Sanu picked him up, his skin was almost burning her hands. He was unconscious.
“Amadou!” she yelled as she shook him. “Amadou! Say something!”
She ran into the kitchen and poured cold water into a bowl and dunked her handkerchief into it. Sanu brought the bowl and the wet cloth and started to wipe Amadou’s arms, face, and legs. She methodically dunked the cloth and wiped him, trying to cool him off. The cloth and the water in the bowl were getting warmer. She made three trips to the kitchen and used up all of the water in the canisters. Amadou was lying in a pool of water, still burning up. Sanu’s vision blurred as tears poured out.
Everyone anxiously sat around Amadou. Sanu was holding Amadou’s hand as Sankolo wipe his sweat away from his face.
“I have to get the medicine. Amadou needs it,” declared Salif.
“How?” asked Sankolo “We don’t have money.”
“I’m gonna beg for it. I was born a begger. I will do it.” Salif left without saying goodbye.
Hours passed and Salif had not come home. Amadou’s breath was getting shorter and shorter and his fever was rising. Suddenly, he let out a gasp and a long sigh. His hand became limp in Sanu’s grip.
* * * * *
There was no funeral. Amadou’s body was simply wrapped in a white cloth and Aunt Jikuru carried him away. Sanu did not know where, but Aunt Jikuru said that she would take care of him.
Salif was still missing. He did not know of his brother’s death. When Sankolo went to the doctor’s office, she was greeted with contempt.
“That boy deserved what he got!” yelled the nurse in the waiting room. “He tried to steal the antibiotics from the doctor. But I called the police and that boy got what he deserved. He’s probably rotting in jail.”
Sankolo left the office with a heavy heart. She wanted to go visit Salif, but she also knew that she had no money to get him out of jail. She also knew that the police would not invite her in, seeing how obvious it was that she was a slum dweller. The best that she could do was save as much money as she could so that one day she could free Salif.
For weeks, Sanu was in disbelief. She would sometimes think that she heard someone tapping at her window or knocking on her door. She expected Amadou to appear and for them to fetch water together. Whenever she walked to the stream, she would imagine that Amadou was talking to her about the store that they were going to open. Every night, she would roll around and expect to see his sleeping body next to Mama, peacefully dreaming about the store. Every night, she would cry in silence.
* * * * *
Foreigners came to the slums. They came with heavy bags, notepads, hats, and cameras. They also came with an interpreter. While walking to the stream, the interpreter stopped Sanu and asked her what she was doing.
“I’m going to the stream to fetch water,” answered Sanu.
The interpreter said something to one of the foreigners who replied in an odd language. The interpreter asked, “Why do you go so far to get water? Isn’t there a water pump you can use?”
“No. It’s broken. It’s been broken for a year now,” answered Sanu. To her surprise, her eyes were watery and she tried hard to fight back tears.
“Why are you sad?”
“It’s all because of the water pump. If it were not broken, I would not have been sick. If it were not broken, Amadou would still be here. We would have had our own store.”
Curious, the foreigner asked the interpreter to ask Sanu of what she meant. She told her story starting with the day the pump broke. At the end of her story, the foreigner thanked her. Sanu walked away feeling light, as if a burden had been lifted from her shoulders. Maybe what she needed the most was to tell her story to someone who cared to listen to her. This way, Amadou’s death does not go untold.
Two weeks after the foreigners came, government workers came to the slum and fixed the water pump. They also installed another one on the other side of the slum. They even installed public latrines that each family had to pay a small but appropriate amount for the upkeep. Social workers came in and handed out soap and pamphlets with pictures to every house. A social worker and the foreigner that Sanu met came to her house. They told Sanu that it was important to wash her hands every time before eating and every time after she goes to the bathroom. When Mama asked the social worker why all this was happening, the worker replied, “the foreigners who came were part of a group that works with local organizations here on water issues. When they heard of the cholera and typhoid situation, they raised some money to help the people here. They also heard Sanu’s story. They brought it to the government’s attention and the government gave them permission to solve whatever water problems you have here.”
The foreigner whispered something to the social worker.
“Yes. Dr. Joseph said that Sanu’s story was a truly touching one. She regrets that she and her team have not come sooner to help save Amadou. She wants to know if Sanu will be willing to share her story to other people, to other organizations. Sanu will be financially compensated for every story she tells.”
Sanu’s eyes widened up and her heart was beating faster.
“Will my daughter have to leave home?” asked Sankolo. “We don’t have much money to pay for her traveling expenses.”
“We will cover all her expenses. Dr. Joseph will be in town for the next month, teaching a seminar at the University of Bamako. She would be honored if Sanu could come in to her class and talk about what she has gone through. Sanu’s story would greatly educate the university students on the truth behind life in the slums. After that, it is up to Sanu whether or not she would like to travel outside the country to share her story. We feel that a lot of people in this world need to know about water and sanitation issues that some people have to endure. Sanu’s story would shed light on these topics and will encourage people to help solve these problems.”
Sankolo, Bintu, and Sanu looked at each other in silence.
“How about you talk about this tonight? I know that Sanu is still a child and that it would be hard for her to leave home,” said the social worker. “We’ll come back tomorrow morning.”
After the guests have left, Sankolo sat down with her daughters.
“Sanu, what do you want to do?” asked Mama.
“I want to do it, Mama,” said Sanu, “for Amadou. For us. For this community.”
“Mama,” said Bintu, “this is her chance. She can break away from this life. Talking to university students, traveling with all expenses paid for, is better than living here.”
“She’s just a child,” answered Mama. “Sanu, you’re my baby.”
“I’ve grown, Mama,” said Sanu. “I am a strong woman.”
“She’s already been through so much. She can handle this,” encouraged Bintu.
“Please, Mama. Let me tell my story and Amadou’s story. Let his death not go untold.”
With tears in her eyes, Sankolo reached over and hugged both her daughters. Sanu was crying. For the first time, they were tears of hope.
Behind the Story: The Year Without the Water Pump
Let’s talk about crap! There are many words for feces: poop, pooh, crap, crud, doo, dung, s**t, etc. Everyone defecates, but no one wants to talk about it in public. Defecation, especially open defecation, is a public issue. In areas where there are no proper latrines to separate people’s excrements from living areas and from water supplies, fecal matter poses health risks to everyone. In my interview with Anastasia Shown, a Coordinator at the African Studies Center of the University of Pennsylvania, she said that in her travels through Cameroon, Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, and Ghana, most of the people she met wanted running water in their houses. However, what they do not realize is that even if there are a hundred taps in a family compound, people will still get sick if their neighbors openly defecate (Shown). It is estimated that 705 million people in rural parts of southern Asia practice open defecation. This practice is brought about due to the lack of access to proper sanitation facilities. Water supplies will get contaminated and people will get water-borne illnesses unless open defecation is stopped (Millennium 45).
In areas stricken with poverty, especially in slums, people go to the bathroom in various methods. Some would wait until night in order to venture to the fields or bushes to relieve themselves. Others would do their business inside their houses in a bucket and empty the contents into an open drain when no one is looking (Black). “Flying Toilets” are also a common practice where people defecate in plastic bags and throw the bags into a dump.
The lack of a proper sanitation system is more of an issue for girls than boys, especially when young girls are menstruating. “Before the school had toilets we used to hide under the bamboo when we had to go,” recounted Sabina Roka from Simle, Nepal. “During menstruation it was really difficult, and we used to stay at home instead.” In Nigeria, a mother said “During the day we must walk far into the bush if we do not want to be seen. At night there is a danger from snakes and scorpions. Sometimes men follow us and that also makes us afraid” (Plumb). What some of us consider being a simple act of going to the bathroom can be a difficult and dangerous task in some parts of the world.
What is it about crap that is so deadly? According to New Internationalist’s “Toilets – the Facts,” in one gram of feces, there can be:
1,000 parasitic cysts
100 parasitic eggs
In slums, where thousands of poverty-stricken people are crammed into a small area, with no proper sewage system or water system, diseases travel quickly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some diseases caused by drinking polluted water include cholera, typhoid, diarrhea, dysentery, and Leptospirosis. Children are most affected by these diseases because of their weak immune system due to malnourishment, which is due to poverty. Some may say that poverty is caused by the lack of access to clean drinking water and a sanitation system. When children are forced to spend most of their days fetching water, they cannot go to school. When children drink contaminated water, they become sick and some even die, robbing them of their opportunity to get an education. Without education, these children cannot get themselves out of poverty.
In an ideal and uncorrupted world, governments would help those in poverty. In certain countries, however, government agencies turn a blind eye against those living in slums. It’s too much of a problem and too costly to deal with, so slum dwellers continue to live in poverty. The reality, however, is that whatever goes on in the slums affect the wealthy and the country as a whole. If there’s a cholera outbreak in one slum in a city, the whole city population is at risk. It’s in the government’s interest that the people are healthy. Mel Payne, who traveled to Kenya to work on a water project with Keiyo Soy Ministries, said, “People are the most precious commodity you can have. Without human beings, nothing can happen.” He further explained that countries develop and grow because of good infrastructure. Having clean water for people to drink means that people will be healthy enough to create the infrastructures that are needed (Payne). Because governments are corrupt and the poor tend to be forgotten in policies, foreign aid is important to encourage changes. International humanitarian groups can help improve drinking water quality and sanitation quality in slums. It is up to the inhabitants, though, to maintain the improved facilities after the foreigners have left. Education is key to breaking through poverty.
You can find out more about global water and sanitation issues through “Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene” on UNICEF’s website: http://www.unicef.org/wash/index.html.
To help build toilets around the world, visit World Toilet Organization’s website: http://www.worldtoilet.org/.
To find out more about Keiyo Soy Ministries and their projects, please contact:
Dr. Elijah Korich
Black, Maggie. “We Need to Talk About…Toilets.” New Internationalists Aug. 2008. 3 Feb. 2009 < http://www.newint.org/features/2008/08/01/keynote-toilets/>.
The Millennium Development Goals Report 2009. New York: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2009. <http://millenniumindicators.un.org/unsd/mdg/>.
Payne, Mel. Interview. 16 Apr. 2009.
Plumb, Libby. “Dignity and the Decent Facility,” New Internationalists Aug. 2008. 3 Feb. 2009 <http://www.newint.org/features/2008/08/01women-girls/>.
Shown, Anastasia. Interview. 17 Sept, 2009.