When I was in Zambia in July reporting on infectious diseases, something happened one day while visiting the N’Gombe compound in Lusaka that really made me think critically about the global water problem and how extensive and intricate it really is.
While we sat inside the small, tidy home of a family that was affected by tuberculosis and listened intently to their personal story we simultaneously heard an N’Gombe community leader ranting and shouting outside the home to the other half of our group who waited for their chance to interview the family. As I sat there listening to the man’s shouts coming in clearly through the windows I wondered why he was so angry. Was he mad because western journalists were intruding on the residents’ space again? Did we do something to upset someone in the community? Thankfully none of those scenarios were true. We never want to unknowingly disrupt. He was angry because of the lack of water for families in his part of the N’Gombe compound, a settlement of roughly 80,000 to 120,000 residents where he was a community leader.
Looking back at that moment I am convinced the man didn’t know who we were, but I am quite sure he secretly hoped that collectively we could pull some strings and bring water to that area of the compound. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. We were a group of foreign journalists looking at HIV/AIDS, TB, and malaria in Zambia. Despite that, he wanted someone to hear and feel his frustration about the lack of water access, even if he had to take a chance on filling the ears of westerners who weren’t there expressly to see the water problem. He later calmed down after being asked what his problem was by our Zambian translators.
After leaving the tuberculosis patient’s home, our group decided to listen to the man’s story and we followed behind him at a quick clip down a dirt road to personally see the reason for his intense ire. It turns out that even though pipes had been laid in his section of N’Gombe no water flowed. He was angry about it and quite honestly, who could blame him? The pipes had been so long without water that kids in the community had ruined the taps where water should have flowed abundantly. His point was that if the water flowed, the taps would not have been damaged. Today they sit not working and a constant, everday reminder of how far people (mostly women and girls) must walk each day to purchase water.
He then took us a little further down the dirt road to a borehole that had previously been paid for and dedicated by a former N’Gombe resident who had studied at a western university and had become a successful businessman. The borehole had apparently been dedicated in a huge ceremony that brought out community members and city officials in droves. Now, it no longer works and sits rusted and useless.
In N’Gombe there are now water kiosks where residents can buy clean water, but they are not placed in close proximity to every resident. Judging from the man’s anger I could clearly see that access to water is a perpetual problem for many in the community.
As he continued to tell us about the problem I looked around at people going about their everyday lives. Merchants sold vegetables and bags of coal. Kids ran and played oblivious to the world’s problems. Teens milled about together seemingly in their own world looking at their phones. And then I looked up and saw this advertisement on a pole right under the man who was complaining.
I’m certain it just added fuel to the fire. I couldn’t believe the irony.