Peculiar water habits in Nairobi


A man drinks water.

Photo credit: File | Shutterstock

“Water is the soul of the Earth,” said Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-1973), the American poet. He would have been mistaken for a Nairobi native. You will recognise a Nairobian - not us recent Nairobi immigrants - a born and bred one from Buru, Huruma or other Nairobi villages, by their attitude towards water. They revere water.

‘Water is life’ has a deeper meaning to a Nairobian than it has to you and me. If Nairobi was a tribe, they would have water as their god. It is only in Nairobi that an estate increases value because it has a borehole. It is only in Nairobi that a house can go for years without water running through its taps. Nairobians will invent award -winning technologies but will have plastic containers adorning their balconies, instead of plants and flowers. Nairobians trade in water cartels. Neighbourhoods steal water or direct pipes to your estate at a fee. A Nairobi couple will fight about water, as if there are not enough problems in the world to stress about.

Dry taps

One Sunday, we woke up to dry taps. Nothing surprising about that, since this is Nairobi and when we are not paying exorbitant prices to the noisy water bowsers, we are busy massaging the egos of the Nairobi water and Sewerage Company so that they can open the water valves and direct some drops our way. This Sunday, I woke up because of Hubby’s loud cursing. Groggy, I sat up.

“What is it?” I mumbled as he continued cursing out.

“No water. No shower!”

“Well…that’s normal…”

“No, you guys washed clothes on Saturday instead of Tuesday!” I was not in the mood to argue but it seemed he had dreamed of enjoying a hot shower this cold morning and now this. What made this dispute disturbing is when the children, native Nairobians, joined in, distancing themselves from the water crime.

“I did not flush the toilet!” confessed our legend of a son, expecting a pat on his back, as if this made sense, which, it did, by the way. Any good parent should teach their child to flush the toilet after them. Nairobian parents teach their children not to ‘waste’ the precious water by flushing toilets, unless and only if the business in the toilet was the number two.

I was raised in a village with no water as well, but we did not have the peculiar attitudes of water that native Nairobians hold. For starters, we had no flush toilets to worry about, so I have never learned not to flush a toilet after me. Even when I enter a public washroom to powder my face, I will dispose the tissue in the toilet and flush away.

Native Nairobians gasp and exclaim, “Don’t flush!” Up country, we never bought water. It would have been sacrilegious to sell water. We knocked doors and borrowed water and carried the drums on our backs. When we met other villages on the hunt for water -a full day affair – we directed them to the homes with water.

As the wife of a native Nairobian, I have had to quickly unlearn and relearn new water attitudes in order to survive. For example, while I would have preferred to live in estates with gardens in the outskirts of the city, he let me know that lone houses are not just insecure, but have serious water issues.

“Apartments at least have boreholes or shared costs for bowsers.”

I have also learnt that inviting guests over depends on whether there is water in your storage tank or not. We have had to skip general cleaning for a couple of days leading to a house party because we could not risk the possibility of dry taps on the D- day. I have turned plumber, with a PhD in opening cisterns. When the taps are dry but you still need to flush toilets using the cleaning water.

While they idolise water, Nairobians have a deep mistrust of water sources. Hubby, a typical native Nairobian carries excess bottled water when we travel. He will not even brush his teeth with the hotel water or the one in our tap in the village.

While I have no qualms drinking the water straight from the tap, he will walk around with his prized bottled water. By the time we are back to the city, there are always bottles or even a dozen of unopened water bottles in the car boot.

Karimi is a wife who believes in marriage. [email protected]