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Life in Uganda

Water … part 2

And now, more watery issues, but this time a fair number of years later – the inbetween things will come up in due course. In 1993 I moved to a small place called Nkozi, situated on the Masaka Road and right on the Equator, to set up Uganda Martyrs University. I had been in Europe for some ten years teaching in universities and doing some work as the Chairman Judge of the Catholic National Church Tribunal of Belgium. Now by accepting this challenge, and seeing an opening for my dream to return to Africa come through, I received mixed messages from friends and family. Some thought it was sheer madness, others thought it was generous, while others thought it was a no-goer and could not yield results. I will tell the full story in another blog. As to why I had spent ten years in Europe, that too is a story for another day!

We had been given an old National Teachers’ Training College at Nkozi, which had been started in the first half of the twentieth century. It was totally dilapidated following the various not-so-glorious wars in the country after Independence, and there we were, Herself and myself, looking at the place and wondering what next. One thing which appeared to us as essential from the first day was “water”. The place had an old Braithwaite steel galvanised square water tank at the top of the hill – again a place built on a hill! – which from a distance looked fine but once you were close to it the picture changed completely. Holes and rust had become common feature of this reservoir. So we needed to repair what could be repaired and see what next! Tar does marvels in these circumstances but it can be a bit messy when applying it. Then came the most important question: where would water in this tank come from? We were informed that in the valley below in the swamp, there was a concrete tank in which swamp water was stored and then passed through an alum filter into another steel tank, cemented and in dubious state. To say that the water was of high quality was an understatement. If you have ever seen dark brown smelly swamp water, there it was. An old diesel pump did its best to bring some of this liquid up the hill and through gravity it came back down to the campus. As we were temporarily residing in the “doctors’ ” house at the nearby mission hospital, we had running water, well at least some of what came down from campus, as well as a rainwater tank behind the kitchen.

Now in June 1993 we were in the dry season which went on for quite some time, and, as a result, this rainwater tank was empty and extremely smelly. We peeped inside and found all sorts of little creepy creatures which we tried to flush out with our brown smelly water as well as possible and then wait for some rain to come down and bless us with some fresh supply. Well this came at the end of July, a sudden storm of mighty description came down, and Herself could not find a better way to have a fresh shower but to run into the garden in Eve’s attire, with a bar of Sunlight soap, and enjoy the moment to the full. She found it exquisite and certainly refreshing. The rain water tank filled half and this gave us some reserve for our domestic use. But in the meantime we still had at our disposal that brown liquid from the swamp which could also be used for some domestic purposes. But what water could we drink? The first thing to do was to acquire a water filter and boil some of this rain water and fill the large blue metal filter which came all the way from India. At least it gave us drinking water of a kind. Bottled water was not a commodity at that time! But believe it or not, human imagination is something exceptional. Herself came from a home where wine making was a tradition, and with fresh passion fruit juice, she made the most exquisite white wine, which we hoped to enjoy some time later. A later blog will tell you the amazing (and funny) story of this wine!

As we had no masses of rainwater, Herself was asking “how do I do some laundry?” Well to be honest I had no “clear” answer, and the only possible solution was to use the incoming water which, after some time, cleared up to a light brown colour. I do not have to tell you the state of the tank on the ceiling in which some water from the university tank had been stored: on cleaning it you could easily get one inch of muddy silt. So this cleaning exercise proved to be useful. But on a Saturday morning herself decided to do some laundry. The bathtub was half filled, some soap poured into the water and bedsheets and towels put in the tub to soak. After some time herself decided that the best and most efficient way to wash the stuff was simply to get into the bathtub and go for a walk! The rubbing of feet with the linen and the water should make things clean! Well things worked and after some serious walking the sheets were wringed by us both (not an easy job) and hung outside in the sun to dry. I must say that the result was not too bad at all.

As we were building the Vice Chancellor’s residence of the upcoming university, we decided, after the experience of laundry walking, that a washing machine would not be a luxury any longer! But that murky water could not be used permanently and so grew in our minds the “Nkozi Water Works” plan. Three things seemed necessary right from the start. First, find a source where good, clean, drinkable water could be tapped from. Second, find a better and more developed way to store the water, and last, find a way to move the water from point A, the source, to point B, the reserve tanks and then bring it back down to the campus. With the university foreman we started scouting the valley and searched to see if we could find some good water source but our search was not yielding an immediate result. Somebody who trotted with us in the valley, suggested wisely that we ask a person who could do some dowsing to see if water could be found anywhere in the valley. So a good old man with his Y-Rod was found and he started walking the valley. It did not take him long to find places where water could be tapped. In fact, as we were in a swampy valley, I was not surprised at the speed with which he found his way round. Various spots were marked, but now came the problem: how do we get to the water and pump it up the hill? I suggested to dig holes till we got water and tap it from there. I should have known that just digging some small holes would be of not much use for a university campus and its surroundings. Somewhat naïve of me! Our foreman knew a guy who was a professional water driller. He was contracted to assist in our search for water. Machines were brought in and installed in various spots and drilling started. Now if you have ever seen drilling for water, you know it is a rather messy job. Muddy water flies all around and if you are not careful you come out of the exercise well plastered with a coat of muddy something all over you! But the man knew what he was doing, and after some twenty meters depth he hit rocky and sandy soil and informed us that there was water! How could he know that? Experience I suppose, but at his first attempt to get some water up, he lifted a bucket full of dirty sandy water. “No problem” was his answer, “we drill deeper and will certainly find good clear water”. The guy was right and after another ten meters he hit clear water. How he knew the quantity of water and its quality will remain a mystery to me but he assured us that there was plenty of it! I suppose that under the circumstances, the best thing was to believe him and wait till the water came spouting out of the ground. Another three bore holes were sunk.

Satisfied with the work, I drove to Kampala to a company called Davis and Shirtliff hunting for submersible water pumps. Now here I had some experience, so I thought I would not just buy the pumps but also the electrical cables, pipes and other gadgets to make it a fully operating pumping system. The reasonable thing to do was to ask the company to come and install them. In this way it would be done professionally and a warranty would be in place! It seemed I had learned something from past experiences! Two pumps would be sufficient, they declared, and the other two wells were capped for later use. After another couple of weeks of work, new water pipes were moving up the hill to our water tanks. In the meantime a new concrete tank was under construction to contain 250.000 litres. A good reserve for a university campus! A jolly plumber with an inclination to imbibe some of the “hard stuff”, put new water pipes down from the tanks to some of the houses. Now this was forgetting that with the height of the tanks and the quality of the new pipes, that old equipment might reluctantly accept this bounty of clear liquid. When we opened the new line to our house, well what had to happen happened. The taps just flew of the wall and floods were part of an experience not to be forgotten so soon. But it was limited due to the quick action of our plumber who capped his new line and set out repairing the damage done.

But in the end it was a successful enterprise: Nkozi had running water. Over time this project would be extended to the nearby hospital, the parish, and some of the shops and schools. “Nkozi Waterworks” had been set up and at home both of us could lift a good glass of some precious liquid to celebrate this event. I recalled that I had learned the hard way, from my first bush place, that water can be scarce and is precious as gold! Then we thought further, and the fact that rain was not an impossible thing in the area, and with the multitude of roofs on campus, it was decided to dig five ten thousand litre PVC water tanks in the ground behind the main building which had become the central administration. All being linked, this gave us a reserve of 100.000 litre of rain water. A small pump saw to it that the water could be lifted into small tanks on the ceiling of the building when the need arose. Happy people all around and the health of all protected in a better way than before! We could be proud of what had been achieved. Herself was the first one to acknowledge that clear and clean water was better than the brown heavy liquid we used to have, and a clean-water shower was the first thing on the agenda!

But that was not the end of my water experiences. Throughout my recent years in Uganda, water has continued to absorb a lot of my time and attention. More anon. Next time I will talk about an element not always in good terms with water, electricity, an item that also cost me a lot of hard work and heartache!

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