Why bowsers at burial sites are an attraction for thirsty villagers

Despite the disorganisation at the watering point, the women are careful not to be loud, lest they draw attention and appear insensitive. [Courtesy]

A decision to follow a man carrying containers of water on a motorcycle leads to a home of an ailing widow in Kosele, in Kenya’s Homa Bay County.

The woman in her late 50s has been in and out of hospital, but without proper diagnosis. Family and villagers, mostly women, visit as her condition worsens, but offer no more than sympathy.

But then there is another problem; water. The wait for Aboi (seemingly his nickname), the man who has just arrived with six 20-litre jerrycans on a motorcycle, has taken more than three hours. Yet everyone is careful not to be angry with him. They will need the water vendor the next day. Instead, all try to sweet-talk Aboi to start with them the next day. He does not commit.

“The demand is so high and there is no other source nearby. We are lucky he came,” says Suslia Ajwang’, a villager at the home.

Before Aboi’s arrival, the younger women in the homestead had sought water from another home that has a well. They got four 20-litre jericans.

Akinyi Omondi, a relative of the ailing woman, says with sickness and meagre income, one is torn between buying water and drugs or food.

“Disease and hunger can conspire to mess a manageable situation,” she says, then adds: “It hurts that the little money we get has to be split between food, water, medication and other basic needs. We are not even food secure.”

On a normal day, the family uses at least 200 litres of water, but on this day there are guests. Besides, they have to buy maize.

“Eating here means taking ugali (maize meal) at least once a day. As a woman, you worry more over scarcity of water and hunger, as children look up to you,” Akinyi says.

A day after the visit to the ailing woman’s home, she dies.

It takes slightly over a week before her burial. It is during this burial that the desperation for water among the villagers becomes more evident.

Throughout the funeral ceremony, two clean-water bowsers stand in the compound. Nothing out of the ordinary happens, until mourners are headed to the graveside.

Suddenly women appear with jerrycans from several directions, and head straight to one bowser, where a man opens the tap. Despite the disorganisation at the watering point, the women are careful not to be loud, lest they draw attention and appear insensitive, since the burial has not yet ended. A few men also join.

The water containers had been lying in bushes outside the home of the bereaved, while others were used as seats as their owners waited for the opportune time to strike. The bowser owners understand them, and would rather share the water than return with it.

Guests from afar seem perturbed by the activities at the “water point”. 

“This is common in funerals nowadays. Word spreads about the existence of bowsers, and on the burial day, you wait for the opportune time to get water before the bowser is driven away,” says Monica Aoko, a mourner.

Lilian Atieno, who supplies bananas locally, says she has observed this a lot, and blames it on poverty and efforts to minimise spending on water.

“Women could work in people’s farms for pay, and afford solar lighting, school fees, good food and a lot more. Now water takes the biggest chunk of our meagre earnings, and time. Humans have to find ways to survive, that’s why the women are not ashamed. Wanaweka aibu kando,” she says.

Saye, the stream in question, is approximately 500m from the home the burial takes place in. The riparian land looks intact, but you can comfortably walk on the river bed; it is dry.

A lot of trees, mostly Eucalyptus, grow near the banks. Eucalyptus is thought to be the cause of the problem, but climate change is equally blamed by those who say the river would flow some years back.

“If growing trees could help improve a river, then these trees should have saved this river. But it is so dry,” says Eunice Aseno, a teacher locally. This has been worsened by drought, and when it rains heavily, the river’s bed is eroded. 

Aseno says they get water from wells, some sunk by churches and CBOs.

“There has been drought since last October. Poor health due to lack of water automatically follows because we do not clean clothes and utensils well enough,” she says. She showers only once a day, even though she would prefer to bathe many more times. “I’m a woman remember! But I know that bathing becomes a luxury for many, especially men,” she says.

Sarah Achieng’ is thankful that they can access water from boreholes in some church compounds. “We do not have water because of climate change. We buy a 20-litre jerrycan at Sh5, and I can use up to 10 in a day.”

“We are forced to dig with our fingers or jembe for water to come out. As you wait, the sun burns your skin. Sometimes the skin looks cracked. This eats into your confidence,” says Atieno.

She says her daughter has to split the time she has after school between doing homework and getting water to at least bathe. “This is contributing to poor performance and families do not spend much time together,” she says.

Atieno adds that with drought, snakes are enterung homes.

“Two times I have found snakes in my house. So once in a while I burn a piece of tyre for the smell to send them away, then at night I leave water in a trough outside the house. You buy water even for snakes,” she says, adding that when snakes frequent homes, people may assume one practices witchcraft.

According to Meryne Warah, the Global Coordinator for GreenFaith International, women’s resilience to the climate crisis must be increased by encouraging them to actively practice agriculture, to tackle food insecurity.

“Also let women to co-own land so they can be part of the decision on how the resoiurce is used. They must also be part of decision making to fully participate and own implementation.

Ms Warah encourages decentralisation of information on weather predictions, besides agressive efforts to plant trees to increase forest cover. “Nyanza, despite habouring Lake Victoria and several rivers, ironically only has an average 0.05 per cent forest cover due to human actions such as use of fuel wood and charcoal. A lot of trees cut are not replaced.”

Homa Bay County Minister for Climate Change Dickson Nyawinda says the county’s biggest rivers such as Kuja and Awach are still intact, but the areas facing water scarcity will benefit from some African Development Bank projects; one worth Sh750 million in Oyugis, and another Sh650 million in Kendu Bay.

“We are also working with the Kenya Forest Service, CBOs, National Department of Environment, Kenya Scouts Assocaition, schools and others to distribute tree seedlings. We are pushing for tree growing rather than just planting,” said Mr Nyandiwa.

The county is dredging to allow its rivers to move, besides encouraging farmers to grow the right trees near rivers.  Kosele, he says, does not rely on any river now, and will benefit from the Oyugis project “on River Awach at Atemo”.

He is cognisant of the fact that some trees, especially the Eucalyptus, may be sucking water from rivers, and says, enlightenment on the right kind of trees to plant in certain areas is ongoing. “Eucalyptus has contributed in drying of a lot of springs locally,” says Nyawinda, adding: “We encourage sustainable reaforestation with indigenous trees for culture, aesthetic and medicinal value besides environmental protection.”

Warah and Nyandiwa separately agreed that effects of climate change are gradual, but lethal on vulnerable communities, including women. Sustainability, they said, is key to preventing hunger, disease, poverty and biodiversity loss. “We work with all stakeholders because some people only listen to CBOs, churches or government. Crossborder issues have also been addressed because everyone lives in someone’s downstream or upstream,” says Nyawinda.

 - The writing of this story was enabled by Wan-Ifra’s Social Impact Reporting Initiative (SIRI). Views presented in this article are the writer’s observation and research.