At 11 am on a normal weekday, you can usually spot small gatherings of women scattered around the estate’s manicured lawns. Most of these women just sit on the grass – no muss, no fuss. But others go all out. Spread out on the grass are colorful light blankets, kikois, and lesos; the latter sometimes proclaiming in print their owners’ philosophies. Maybe carry-ons from their ruracios? There is a plethora of toys all over the place, feeding bottles here and there, children being cuddled or playing with the toys and occasionally, a tot on the walkway struggling to master the milestone art that is tricycle-riding. This seemingly full-service gathering comes with a changing station as evidenced by the diapers and wipes strewn about as well as an outdoor salon or two. It is here that lucky parents are saved salon bills, not to mention the ordeal of going through endless packets of tamu tamu, big daddy, dairy fresh and ribenas, or even worse, handing over their smartphones filled with Google Play’s finest games so that their little princesses can get tiara-worthy hairstyles. These women are the estate house-helps.
At 11 am, the chores are all done, the sun is not yet blindingly hot and lunch is still an hour or two away. This is also the lull before the estate is flooded with uniformed children as they are dropped off by even more uniformed buses. It is the domestic managers’ downtime. It is here that souls are unburdened, dreams and aspirations shared, and yes, household secrets dissected.
But this is not a normal weekday. No! Not at all. For this is not a normal week. This is the week that households in the estate bid adieu to their instant showers as they became well-versed with the until then, foreign concept known as water rationing. You see, due to a messed-up pump, the estate has been experiencing a massive water shortage, that has sent residents flocking to the estate’s WhatsApp group and has the management team posting notices all around the estate urging residents to be patient as they try and resolve the issue. Today, their severely tested patience has been rewarded somewhat. There was a message from the water guys reading, “The water pump situation will be resolved soon.” The Davis and Shirtliff truck seen in the estate gives credence to their assertion. In the meantime, they promise to have the outdoor water taps with water running long enough for households to replenish their dwindling supply. The rumbling sighs of relief can be felt from all but the estate’s top floors.
So, at 11 am today, the gatherings have been replaced by queues at different water points in the estate. For residents not willing to queue, they can get two 20-liter jerricans of water for a hundred shillings. I have also spotted a blue and white clean water truck driving past our apartment block. I wonder how much that costs. There are trolleys coming in, bringing with them the hastily bought jerricans and tanks from Kariokor Market. They are making a killing over there; water shortage for us and it is raining money for them.
With my Kariokor-certified water paraphernalia, I join the queue nearest our apartment block. Armed with my copy of Jackson Biko’s Drunk, I settle in for the wait. There is the hum of conversation in the background as I get to know Larry, occasionally broken by a loud laugh or someone tapping me on my arm and saying, “mrembo, eka zako mbili.” I gratefully oblige and ensure two of my containers are filled with water, putting them on the side before resuming my reading. Gradually, snippets of conversation get through the reading barrier that I have put up and it is not that long before I find myself getting drawn to their conversations. After a while, I am unabashedly listening in, having given up all pretense of reading – Maggie’s kinks and Larry coming into his manhood will have to wait.
“Yule ndo ako university.” a light-skinned woman with permed hair in urgent need of a touch-up says as she switches out her full 20-liter yellow Rina oil jerrican for an empty one.
“Na anapenda hiyo paka yake.” she continues as she finishes her task. I look around trying to spot this cat-loving university student. There! I see him! He’s walking towards the gate. I stare at him trying to assess whether anything about him screams cat-lover. He looks to me like a typical young adult.
“Ikiboeka kidogo tu inakimbizwa kwa Daktari.” Shock waves flutter through the gathered women as they all try to make sense of this alien notion of a bored cat being rushed to the doctors’.
“Kwa Daktari?” they chorus.
“Eeeeh, ata usiku” she hastily assures her captive audience as she struggles to say the word “veterinarian”. This takes a while to sink in. I use this break in the conversation to ferry to our first-floor unit, my water-filled jerrican that still smells like the Quencher juice it carried in its heydays and my also water-filled bucket with no apparent affiliations.
When I get back, there is a new addition to the queue and she’s trying to get her two 20-liter plain matte black jerricans filled next. Her boss is in the house, she says as she argues her case, and doesn’t understand why chores haven’t yet been done.
“Anataka nifanye kazi na maji gani, sasa?” She wonders out loud.
“Mimi wangu hanisumbui.” One woman rubs it in. “Hana shida nikiwa hapa nje, maji ni Mungu wake.” She adds. Her boss can’t be that much of a worshipper, I think, or there would be clean water trucks outside their apartment block and she’d be in the house, instead of out here, directing the water transfer.
Pretty soon the cat-loving university student is back, having ditched his outer clothing and is now down to a white wifebeater, jeans, and flipflops. After some silent communication and getting a nod from the light-skinned woman, he takes two of the jerricans and heads for the stairs.
“Na si una bahati.” One of the women tells her, wishing she too was lucky enough to have a cat-loving university student to help her carry water up five flights of stairs.
“Aki si arudie zingine.” She hopes as she rolls a leso into a circular mound and places it on her head before balancing a full bucket on it and gracefully making her way to the stairs. Looking at how effortlessly she makes the whole process look makes me wish that I too had been born at the lakeside. I am not the only one hoping for a genie as remarks by some of the other women prove. More so when a dark-skinned woman with a crew cut haircut is seen standing a few feet away from us, jerrican perfectly balanced on her head, arms akimbo as she has a conversation with her companion, occasionally moving her hands around as it gets animated. I’m in awe but I don’t say this out loud. I haven’t yet earned my stripes and so can only watch and listen but not chime in.
It’s about 3 o’clock now, the queues have dwindled as some of the women filled their quota and went to catch up on chores. The stragglers come in now. The first one saunters over, dressed in all-black and swinging a matching black jerrican at his side. The second is not far behind. This one has two 10-liter Aquamist water bottles. He has no caps for these bottles. Like many in the estate, the water shortage has probably caught him unprepared. He struggles to carry the water back to his block, eventually leaving one bottle behind and coming back for it later. The third one comes out with such a tiny water bucket, I’m wondering why she even bothered. Maybe reading my judgmental vibes, she brings out three normal-sized buckets.
I leave the stragglers to their fetching as I take in the last of the water. As I do this, I’m thinking about how I will retell my water-fetching adventures in the evening. It will begin with something like, “I brought you life!” – maji ni uhai after all. I am hopeful that tomorrow, with the pump fixed or replaced, our house taps will once again know the taste of water and the 11 am gatherings will resume.