Kenya- A Writer Remembers: The Arduous Trek For Drinking Water

By Joyce Chimbi

A Writer Remembers:  The Arduous Trek For Drinking Water

Part One of a Story in Two Parts

NAIROBI - I clutched my school bag tightly against my chest to protect my books from the heavy rains. The road was muddy and slippery and I went down several times. I was muddy and wet. But I knew I had to get home fast.

I was only seven-years-old, but I had to get home in my town of Kiambu, nine miles north of Nairobi, to help catch enough rain water to see us through the dry spell that we knew would soon follow the rains.

When the dry season came, the nearby Kamiti River would become a weak trickle of a stream. It would be the main source of drinking water in my town of 21,000 and my job would be to haul water from the river, half a mile or one kilometer from my grandmother’s house. The longer our supply of water from the rainy season held out, the longer I could avoid the trek to the river. It was a lonely and often scary job, especially for a seven-year-old.  

My grandma valued education so I had to go to the river in the evenings, after school. I carried two containers that could hold a little more than a gallon or 5 liters of water. It was often hard to get the lid on tight and river water often soaked my clothes. The older girls were steadier. When they helped me not even a drop of water was lost.

As night fell, the river path became deserted. A quarter-mile or about 400 to 500 meters from the river, the land was all bushes and coffee shrubs. There were no houses. Sometimes I thought the bushes and coffee plants were alive, lurking monsters.  A gust of wind would rattle their leaves and I would jump back. One evening I saw a snake. It was dead. One of the boys had beaten it with a stick. I was not reassured. I thought: If there was one snake, there must be others. My imagination worked overtime. I kept thinking someone could be hiding in the bushes. Making it back from the river with the heavy cans, I couldn’t wait to get to the first line of houses. At least then if someone tried to get me, people in the houses might hear me shouting. 

My treks for water were nearly 20 years ago. I graduated from Moi University in Kenya in 2007 with a degree in linguistics and literature. I am a writer for African Woman and Child Feature Service.  

The memories of hauling water for my family, walking over and over along that scary, dark path, are still vivid. The sad thing I discovered as I looked into the situation with water these days in Kenya and around the world is that for hundreds of millions of people, the daily, sometimes twice daily, trek for water is not a memory but a reality of life. 

In 2009, people are still spending huge amounts of time walking to fetch enough water to get through the day, time they could be using to do work around the house or at jobs or time they could use for just relaxing.  Hundreds of millions of other people get water at taps at central points in their villages rather than in their homes. That water and even water piped into homes is not always clean and safe. Altogether nearly one billion people, almost one-seventh of all the people on earth, lack consistent access to clean water. I am not so different from that huge group of people. 

I now live in an apartment in Kenya. To make sure I stay healthy, I always boil the water from my kitchen sink before I drink it. I think about all those people without clean water and I flash back to my childhood. I’m personally in a better place. But when I was growing up, I later learned, about a billion people were struggling to get clean drinking water every day. Now I see the number is about the same. I read that governments and non-profit organizations have been spending hundreds of millions of dollars on water projects. But there has not been much progress.

Elizabeth Nyokabi (on the right) with her granddaughter, Chimbi. Photo By Samuel Gathiga

My childhood town of Kiambu is in coffee and tea country about 45 minutes’ drive from Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. The town, like Nairobi with more than 2 million people, sits on high ground about 5,675 feet or 1,730 meters above sea level. It is cool year round.  In Kiambu, only children fetched water. The grown-ups were busy with other household chores and their jobs.  At seven years old, I was not very big. I could not carry a big container of water like the older girls. They lugged containers of a little more than five gallons or 20 liter of water, much more than I could manage. My family had the same water needs as the other families which meant I had to make many trips to the river. Only darkness gave me a break.

Back on that rainy day when I was seven, my schoolmates were in as much of a hurry as I was. The rain did not slow them down. In fact, it made them run harder.  At home that day, my grandmother was waiting for me. I was cold, numb and hungry. But I went straight to helping her aim the gutters from the roof of the house into our buckets and tanks. 

She and I stood there under the edge of the roof, the rain pounding down around us. I could not hide my joy. Grandma was near the door, smiling back at me. A couple of stray dogs loped up to one of our tanks and tried to take a drink. I yelled at the dogs and pelted them with stones. They got the message and moved on.

I wiped my running nose and watched the rain. It would be a long time before I would have to go back to the river. It might be as much as a month. Grandma had a big storage tank. #

Watch for Part Two. It will be published soon on


Photo by Trenton DuVal

Kiambu, Kenya coffee plantation.

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