We must have been eight years old when we left Harun alone in the forest, swimming in a small pond.
A few weeks ago, an old friend of mine died. He had been beaten up by a conductor for refusing to pay his fare. Because he was high, I was told, he didn’t realize how badly he was injured. So he slept and never woke up.
His name was Douglas, a short stubby man who was hardier than anyone I knew. We cruised through primary school together, sharing defender positions on the pitch during PE. The last time I saw him he regaled me with a story about how he was arrested while walking at night once. When he was tossed into the cell, with threats of sodomy and murder, he was shaking like a leaf. But then he found the Don of the cell was a distant cousin of mine, a perennial convict who had spent the better part of that year there. We had all been in the same class once, in the same Class 4 with chipping bricks and gaps when panes had once been. It was a reunion in government accommodation.
There’s something about such deaths that tosses back random memories. Memories of a khaki uniform with a blue sweater, and muddy walks to school. One of those memories was about water. We had to carry a bottle of water every Tuesday and Friday; from home, or from the rivers on the way to school. It didn’t matter. You just couldn’t walk into the school on those two days without a bottle of water. And not later than 6:45 am.
We used the water to wash the classes and water the gardens. That first jerry can was the starter pack; once it was empty we headed out to look for more.
There is a river near my primary school we call, for some odd reason, Gitau. To get to it, you had to walk out through the big blue gate, down the straight road, around the school’s kei apple fence, down a small hill, and on to a queue of other people who needed the water too. Fetching water was work, but going to fetch it didn’t have to be.
There were no rules on how exactly you were supposed to get to the river. And if it was a Friday, there was that expectation that you would get home dirty anyway. So we sat on the jerricans on top of that hill, near the home of another guy called Ken who died last year, and skid down the hill. We would fetch water and pour it down the dusty hill, making it as slippery as possible and having more fun than can be explained in words.
It was bliss. Pure bliss.
The thing about bliss is that it is addictive. It demands an upgrade.
One time, the river was too dirty, even for the classroom floor. We needed an option, and I knew just the place. Whenever it rains, a seasonal river flows down the valley that divides my dad’s land with his neighbor’s. It is a small stream that dries as fast as it appears. It’s to this stream we headed, armed with jerry cans and ideas.
Harun asked if the river was big enough to take a plunge. No it wasn’t, I said. But Harun, the only light-skinned one in what amounted to a small gang, wasn’t one to be bothered with such details.
“Let’s swim! I want to swim!”
“But there’s nowhere to swim, it’s just a small river. You’ll see.”
When we got there, Harun’s gears went into overdrive. If no part of the river was big enough, he mused, why don’t we make one?
That’s exactly what we did. In the end we had a miniature swimming pool with a few tadpoles and only knee-length water. But now that it was complete, only Harun had the balls to actually strip down and swim. It had been his idea anyway.
I am not sure whether it was the awkwardness of pretending to make conversation while he plunged into the shallow pool that made the situation awkward. Or it was the fact that he was stark naked. But we ran. The rest of us just took off. We ran away and left him there, alone, in what amounted to the jungle. In an age when stories of devil-worshipping monsters were told with increasing frequency; with presidential approval.
Harun got back to school about half an hour after we did. He was raving mad and wouldn’t talk to us for hours. But he was safe, a bit shaken and suspiciously ashen.
It’s hard to think about clean water now because, in this middle class life, it seems like a surreal memory. The trips to rivers across the ridges to find water, to even one river that was so far we named it “Gaikamba” which translates to “the river of the Kamba.” With wheelbarrows and bruised shoulders and backs. It’s hard now, in this gilded apartments with their dedicated water tanks, to remember that 37 percent of Kenyans don’t have access to clean water. That 3,100 Kenyan kids die from diarrhea alone, caused mainly by dirty water and poor sanitation.
There is a solution though, a Purifier of Water packet by Procter & Gamble. Through its Children’s Safe Drinking Water program, P&G is working with the Ministry of Health to purify dirty water. The Ministry’s numbers show over 17.3 million Kenyans lack direct access to clean water, and more than half of all hospital visits can be attributed to unsafe water. What the purifier does is exactly what its name promises. It purifies drinking water, 10 liters per sachet. It came about when scientists working on separating dirt from used laundry water had an epiphany. A transformation that’s only a small solution; and hopefully the opening credits to a long-term solution.
Wars are fought over drinking water. Societies survive and tumble; Social units define themselves around this single resource. Yet it’s one of those songs that go mostly unheard, until it’s dark and full of terrors. It’s a song that reverberates through time, no matter how modern or postmodern a society we become.
One story is good,
till Another is told.