Editor’s Note: Good morning. United Nations Aid Worker and Comox Valley mom Kelly Flynn is here talking about life without access to adequate fresh water. This provocative topic is one we don’t often discuss living in a rain forest climate. But, water is precious, so very worth the conversation and action it takes to ensure everyone has enough. Here’s Kelly:
When I would depart for The Gambia, people would say “oh, you are going to Guyana.” I would reply, “No, I am going to The Gambia.” Most people would look confused and stop the conversation dead in it’s tracks – clearly unable to advance the chit-chat because they could not place this country I spoke of on a mental map. I never judged them for not knowing this small out-of-the-way West African nation that faces drought every year and shields itself from the harsh Harmattan winds off the Sahara.
During my earliest trips to The Gambia, I never knew there was such a day called World Water Day. I did not link my work with refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) to the global scarcity of natural resources, such as water, and to devastating climate change.
I now know that climate change causes forced displacement and inhospitable climates cause prolonged human suffering, unspeakable hardships and even death. I have learned some hard lessons over the years.
The Gambia (officially the Republic of The Gambia) is the smallest country on mainland Africa, engulfed by Senegal with a small coastline that faces west to the Atlantic Ocean. This funny, slightly nonsensical nation corresponds to the meandering path of the Gambian River, the nation’s namesake, which flows through the country’s center and empties at the coast.
On 18 February 1965, Gambia was granted independence from the UK and joined the big players in the Commonwealth. Sharing historical roots with many other West African nations in the Slave Trade, which was the key reason for the establishment of a Portuguese and then British colony on the Gambia River, Gambians share tribal and linguistical ties with neighbouring countries – including the disputed area of the Casamance to the south.
Since gaining independence, The Gambia has enjoyed relative stability, with the exception of a brief period of military rule in 1994. Today The Gambia is an agriculturally rich country by African standards. However, under the current dictator more than a third of the population lives below the international poverty line on a mere US$1.25 a day. In the face of its own hardships, The Gambia has welcomed refugees from the Casamance region. It was among these Casamancais refugees that I learned the true value of a bucket of water.
The Casamance region lives in neither war, nor peace. The people there are held hostage in a dry dusty and land mined place. Clashes between the army and separatist troops have underscored that the 27-year conflict is not over, and local observers warn that recent years of “relative calm” must not be taken for granted.
In a refugee community that I was visiting with a Gambian colleague, I witnessed something that I had never seen with my own eyes. I had heard stories of people making due without water, but I had never truly experienced, first-hand, what this would look like in practice. In The Gambia I did.
Speaking local language, my colleague started up a conversation with a young woman who was bathing her child – a baby about five or six months old. The mother, practically bare-chested, stood bent over, while the baby squirmed about in the rusty bucket, crying now and then. The mother had that look of “all business” on her face – get the baby bathed and move on to all the other daily chores an African woman does during her exhausting 12-15 hour day of hard-back-breaking work.
As I neared closer, I could smell something strong in my nostrils – not the squeaky clean smell of a baby in a bath with soap. Something quite the opposite.
Standing watching this woman – and feeling as if I was invading her personal space even though she bathed her child in a totally open and public area – I realized that she was not using water at all. I did not know what the liquid was in the bucket and I had to ask.
I was told that the mother did not have enough fresh and potable water on a daily basis for her family and what clean water she did have was needed for well-managed cooking and drinking. As a result, daily chores – like bathing her child – were done with watered down cattle urine. I asked my colleague a second time if I had understood correctly – this woman was bathing her child in a bucket of urine? Yes. I had heard correctly. It was all that she had at this time of year and life had to go on.
Water was a scarce resource, not worth wasting on a bath in a bucket.
As we left this camp, I was rattled by so much that I had seen that day – a medical clinic that was so dirty that not even the goats would take rest in it; a family living under make-shift shelter that barely provided shade in the hot sun let alone privacy or warmth in the cooler night; a woman carrying an old full-size broken refrigerator on her back – telling us that she would keep this until the day she had a house to put it in; and an old man planting seeds in the red dirt that simply blew away when a slight breeze passed by us.
All heart-breaking stuff. But the baby bathing in the bucket was what rocked my world the most. A new perspective on how refugees simply survive in a place that is not home, not hospitable. A new perspective on water and how we take it for granted with every turn of the tap, every sip from a glass, every flush of the toilet and every bath we draw to soak our healthy bodies.
I was going home with a new admiration for people who cope with living in neither peace, nor in war, nor a life with access to adequate and clean water for a dignified existence.
For me, as a Westerner, water was something to start thinking about seriously. In my refugee and IDP work, the Casamance in West Africa was a region to watch closely and to advocate on behalf of.