Madzi ndi Moyo (Water is Life)

By Birgit McMullen
March 26, 2018
I don’t think a place on earth exists where people don’t talk about water.

In Utah we have always watched the snow-covered mountains as a predictor of how much water we would have the next year. In Flint, Michigan, an entire town has been living with poisoned drinking water for the past three years. The biggest concern after a natural disaster is always how to get drinking water to the people. We hear about how water gets polluted by oil spills from pipelines, off-shore drilling, vacation cruise lines, and plastic residue. Some of us have been implementing water-saving measures in our homes such as putting bricks or bottles in our flush toilets as to not use too much water that way. We have changed our grassy front lawn to a rock design, we use drip systems, don’t wash our cars in the drive way, use showers instead of baths. We have been watching the progression of the melting of glaciers and ice caps. We think about water. I have been thinking about water. But until now I have never had the complete first-hand experience with what it means to not have enough water.

When I first arrived in Malawi I stayed in a “training village” where I learned about everything necessary to survive in a Malawian village. One of the things I learned was how to draw water from a well, pump water from a borehole, and transport a bucket containing five gallons (which weighs about 40 pounds) on my head to our homestead.

My first site had a water tap right outside my little hut and even though the pump sometimes went out, I still had water conveniently close. It was still an extra effort to wash laundry, carry everything in buckets, but it was very close. I never worried.

After moving sites, my situation is a bit different. I have a nice house, but no running water or tap. I always assumed that not having electricity or internet would be the most challenging part of my life in Malawi. And don’t get me wrong, it IS challenging, but having my only water source located a kilometer away from my home is the real hardship. I am not complaining, because in some parts of Malawi or Africa women have to walk even further to fetch water, but it has been such an eye-opener and I would like to share my experiences.

So, how do I live without running water? First of all, I have two large plastic basins, three 5-liter buckets, two 10-liter buckets, one 15-liter bucket, five 20-liter buckets, one 4-liter bucket, and two 60-liter buckets with lids to fetch and store my water. I feel safe when all of the vessels are filled to the brim.

How much water do I need per day (and remember, I am only one person, things multiply when you have a family)? On a regular day, I need water for drinking, cooking and to take a bath. This is approximately 6 gallons, or 24 liters. Sometimes I have to do laundry and mop the house or wash my hair and my use goes up to 20 gallons, or 60 liters.

Colorful buckets sit on the floor next to a water filter.
Birgit's water buckets are some of her most important tools.

What does it take for me to be able to use 20 gallons? On laundry day I have to walk to the borehole 4 times; 4 kilometers with an empty bucket and 4 kilometers with 20 liters of water on my head. Alternatively, I can take my dirty laundry to the borehole and wash it there and carry that back on my head. But I still need drinking water. How much time does it take? As a general rule, people walk 1 kilometer in about 10 min. If no one else is at the borehole, it takes me about 30 min per bucket (walking and filling it), or 2 hours altogether. But the borehole is a place for socializing. Many women and children gather there to chat while pumping water or doing laundry. That means that one usually has to wait in line to pump water. If I carry my water on laundry day, it can take me up to 4-5 hours.

On average, I use 6-8 gallons a day. The average use of water in the U.S. is 80-100 gallon per person per day. To carry 100 gallons from the borehole to the house, I would have to carry 50 buckets a day, spending about 33.3 hours doing so, and that is more hours than one day has! And that is just for one person.

It is safe to say that the village life for women and children centers around fetching water. Wherever you go you either see people carrying water on their heads, pumping water, sitting around a water source chatting, cleaning buckets, etc. One of the nicest things my neighbors ever did for me was bringing a bucket of fresh water to my house late at night after I returned from a long trip. I had not asked for it. But people in the village know that water is the most important thing you need when returning to your house.

In a traditional family, women and children carry the water. Men sometimes carry water for plants in watering cans or they will strap containers to their bikes. They usually do not carry water on their heads even though they know how. Children carry smaller buckets, and the very little ones (3yrs old) carry small cooking pots filled with water. It seems like nobody leaves the proximity of a borehole without carrying at least some.

During rainy season we “harvest” water from the roofs. You can find rows of buckets underneath metal roofs all over the village. I learned very quickly. I have been jumping out of bed at 2am running into a full blown rainstorm setting up all my empty buckets on numerous occasions.

What have I learned from living with no running water? I will never take (clean) water for granted any longer and I plan my water use. If I do laundry, I use the grey water for mopping my house. I also use bath water to water my plants. I know exactly which bucket has the latest, freshest water. I spend many hours boiling and filtering drinking water, because it is easy to get dehydrated if you have to work for every drop.

Last week I noticed women in my immediate neighborhood carrying up to 6 bricks on their heads contributing to the construction of a new borehole. I was very excited to find out that there are plans to drill one very close to my house, only 150 meters away. I take part in the women’s excitement and joyful expectation. This will be an improvement of life and living conditions for many, including myself.

There is a saying in Malawi: “Madzi ndi moyo” or “Water is life.”

A white, female Volunteer over 50 years of age smiles next to a Malawian woman.