Life in Uganda

Water … part 1

After my first experience of bush life, I realised that an essential element in our survival was “water”. The fact that I had to walk outside with my bucket to get some rain water was not the issue. The real issue was the storage of the water. I had been wondering why the water tank in Bubangizi was leaking and soon found out how the tank had been constructed: a series of galvanised rings welded together, clad with chicken mesh, and then plastered with cement. It surely looked strong but water and cement are not always friends and corrosion joins the fray rather soon. Over the years I saw many such water tanks rotting away and being of not much use! So what to do?

When I arrived at Ibanda, I noticed that there were water tanks, some in steel, others in cement, others in bricks, but there was also running water in the house. Where did this come from? The tanks did not collect rain water but got their supply from a spring at the back of the house up the hill (Ibanda was built on a slope against a rather high hill!) So with one of the staff of the catechists’ school, I call him Jeff here, we trotted up the hill in search of the precious liquid. Some hundred metres behind the house and up the hill and at a height of about 40 meters, we found a beautiful spring spewing water out of the ground and flowing down the hill where it went its own way in various directions. At the parish residence someone had had the good idea to capture some of the water and direct it into an underground tank. A small hand pump pushed the water into a tank on the ceiling hence supplying running water. The same exercise was repeated in different locations around the place. But my question was: “How do you know the top tank is full?” Just pump and when the water comes down on your head you will know the small tank is full! Good answer but not the most practical way of verification!

So could something be done to get the water supply more steady and regulated? With Jeff we decided that PVC pipes might be the answer and on the top tanks valves could be placed to stop the continuous flow of water. So we proposed a project to the diocesan treasury for the purchase of pipes and its fittings, and we would do the work. It was approved rather quickly and so we set out on the “Ibanda Water Works” project with a small budget at our disposal. In fact, we had just the money for the equipment, the rest had to be supplied by ourselves! This was no problem as we were full of enthusiasm and desirous to provide a useful service to the whole community of Ibanda. I am not going to describe the fun we had doing this, but after a few weeks we were proud to see the fruits of our labour: the Teacher Training College, Dispensary, Secondary School, Parish, and surrounding shops now had a regular water supply. Gosh were we proud to say “We did it!” I suppose even today the water supply at Ibanda is still a reality, and what is now a hospital (the former dispensary) benefits from “our” waterworks.

This first go at a regular water supply would be with me for all my years in Uganda. I realised very quickly that water was much more important than electricity or any other necessities or goodies one may think of. So a few years later when I was posted at Mushanga Parish, along the Fort Portal road on the way to Queen Elisabeth National Park, I would get involved again in “waterworks”. At the parish there was a regular water supply taken from a well down in the valley. I mention here that most parishes in Ankole are built on a hill dominating the area, an old habit from the first missionaries at the end of the nineteenth century which proved to be a stroke of genius. Now in Mushanga there was a submersible water pump, which worked when the gods were on its side … and the national electricity company would supply power to the place. Already then in 1973 we had electricity shortages, so when it became really bad a number of years later it was no longer a surprise to see the entire county’s lights dim away for prologued periods of time!

But back to my water pump. Obviously something had gone wrong with the machinery and the only thing to do was get the pump out of the well. I had no clue about the depth of the well and with some workmen we started lifting the whole thing. First one pipe of 20 feet, then another one and then another one again and there hanging at the end of it a rusted pump which did not show promising signs of life. What to do? One of the guys said: “remove the pump and take it to Mbarara to a garage, and they will fix it!” In my naivety I agreed and the next day I was in Mbarara at my favourite garage where the manager looked at me and with a grin said: “we repair cars here, not pumps!” Of course I should have thought of it earlier and not make a fool of myself! So I went to the diocesan headquarters (in another blog I will talk about this), and gave the pump to a man called Louis who seemed to be knowledgeable enough about pumps. He looked at it, undid the cap and said simply: “You will need some new bearings for this machine and mind you they are not available here. In the US you can get them but then who will pay for this and bring them here? Not me in any case!” Not very helpful at all! So I approached another colleague: architect and woodworker. I mentioned him earlier and it is with him that we would do lots of good and sometimes crazy things! I told him my story and he said: “Send a request to Kampala to Max and he will get you the right pump”. So I did what he suggested and believe it or not one week later I was in possession of a brand new water pump with an electrical switch and all the needed paraphernalia. I do not know how I thought I could install the beast myself as I had no manual, and so I just stood there looking at the equipment: a beautiful piece of machinery to my eyes!

So back to Mbarara it was, as there was no phone connection, and the question was sent to Max. Back came the answer: he had forgotten to connect the switch but if I could bring it to Kampala he would do the needful. Now driving four hours for a water pump switch seemed rather demanding but luck was on my side and someone volunteered to take the piece to Max. He was back three days later with all the connections made and happily I trotted down to my water well and installed the pump, made all electrical connections and pushed the button to start the pump. Nothing happened until I realised that we had been cut off from the electricity grid: just one more power cut which would become our daily burden in the years to come. When finally power returned, I rushed down the hill and pressed my precious button and there it was: after less than a minute clear and clean water gushed through the pipes up the hill to the house. Hurrah, we did it again! So there I was congratulating myself on this achievement and receiving all sorts of accolades from colleagues who knew how to appreciate water. Was I proud of myself! And all this with a PhD in Laws on my CV, a very useful thing to have in such demanding circumstances!

But I had not forgotten my experience of Ibanda, and in one of the villages of Mushanga, Buhimba, there was a small waterfall bringing water down the hill to a nearby village. Would it be possible to make this a source of regular supply to the people? Relying on my recently-acquired skills and experience, I had no doubt I could do something. And so, with the catechist of the place, we decided to get things going. We bought some PVC pipes, sand, cement, and some bricks, and set out constructing a small dam at the source of the water. It was up a hill and not very difficult to channel the water. Happily we were digging down the hill, until a loud shout rang out, “What the hell do you think you are doing here? This is my plantation and who gave you permission to dig it up? I will go the the chief and he will deal with you appropriately!” Well the guy did go and the chief was there in no time. Luckily for us the man was a man with good common sense and he saw the benefit of what we were doing. He suggested that we should branch of somewhere on the slope and bring water to the land owner’s place. We agreed and immediately set out to work again and soon everyone was happy to have clean water down in the valley. Another good work done and people really seeing the benefits of nature’s bounty. To make things even better the Minister of Natural Resources came to commission the water plant. My gosh was this good! The one major lesson I learned from all this was that I should always check out if what I plan to do will not disturb others and try and keep my impulsive character under control. At least I had learned something! More about water in the next delivery!

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