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Maji, maji, where’s my maji? Living with Zanzibar’s severe water crisis

Zanzibar Water Well, 1908

I just had another flurry of rude text message exchanges with my landlord, Mohammed. The subject? Maji. (Water). No running water now for days. No shower. No cooking. No cleaning. No water.

I called him, no answer. Then I texted him. His response? Sijui. (I don’t know [what to tell you.] Texted him again: say what? Siyo kazi yangu. (It’s not my problem). One more time, what? His last text message to me read, “don’t be a stupid.”

The truth is, it sort of is your problem, Mohammed. It’s our problem, together. It’s the city’s problem. It’s the world’s problem.

In honour of World Water Day, which just passed on March 22, 2011, I feel like it’s time to let my freaky maji flag fly and explain (rant) the water situation here over in Stone Town, Zanzibar, a UNESCO World Heritage site and capitol of the archipelago.

Water shortages here on “paradise” island can sometimes make this city feel like a small hell. Maybe not to the 400,000 long-time city residents, who have lived without reliable, fresh running water in their homes for years; to this mzungu (foreigner) though, a Chicago lake-lady used to gulping copious amounts of tap without thinking twice? Yeah — a life without water is perhaps not worth living.

I wish I could be more lyrical about a water shortage, but there is just nothing poetic about 1.1 million people struggling to secure a basic need. And to be told apparently, through years of neglect, that this particular basic need is not basic enough to warrant a rush on infrastructural change.

Stone Town has no workable water management system, though the city has a few electrically pumped water plants that break down with frequent black outs.  The antiquated distribution system actually consists of asbestos-covered cement, rendering it dysfunctional. The city is also dotted with a few deep wells dug long ago by private citizens and shared haphazardly by local families.

In the early evening, many families send their children out with recycled yellow OKI cooking oil buckets to fetch water from these wells. This, oddly enough, is a charming scene for travelers, who marvel little girls dressed in tattered evening gowns, boys in ragged play clothes, running down the road with their empty buckets clanging behind them on ropes, and then lining up to fill their buckets with well water, sharing the heavy load home two by two. How charming. Tourists snap their pictures. Snap. Snap. Snap. This is daily life in Stone Town.

Water Tank in Stone Town, Zanzibar

I’m lucky enough to be able to afford to rent a 500-year old restored apartment with the supposed promise of fresh, running water. This is a luxury. A major, major luxury.  We use a 500-liter black tank (that’s nearly 132 gallons) poised on a make-shift shelf in our upstairs neighbor’s kitchen. All three families share this tank and negotiate its daily usage through a switch controlled, at least for a time, from my apartment.

Things went well for a while, peace prevailed, water flowed, especially with just two families living in the space instead of three.

Then our Indian neighbours moved in downstairs, and all three families were now sharing the 500 liter tank. Perhaps this was a cultural thing, maybe not – but we began to notice that our downstairs neighbors used water differently than we did – filling four or five tall buckets daily until nearly all the shared tank-water was depleted. The tap was drying up quicker than before.

We peered down into the open courtyard below (we have an open kitchen where we can see everything) and watched as Raki, head of household, poured endless of buckets of water to scrub clothes, tiles, walls, dishes, pots, pans, shoes, sheets, rugs, windows, mirrors, amazing! She is a cleaning maniac! Seriously, Raki’s water usage is prolific. Epic. Outrageous. We went from switching on the pump every three days, to every day, astounded suddenly by how quickly the tank emptied.

This wasn’t the biggest deal, though, only a mild annoyance, until four days ago, when the water tank burst, collapsed off its flimsy shelf, splashing nearly 500 liters of water into the open courtyard below. No more water tank. No more water flowing through the apartment.

There was Raki and her husband standing on the porch one night, looking bewildered and waterless. We called Mohammed, who said that he would tell us more about the water situation in the morning.

We woke up the next day without showers. Our teeth were brushed with DROP, Zanzibar’s bottled water. When I tried to get answers from my landlord, he became irrationally defensive, even offering to return my 20,000 shilling/month water deposit (about $13.00 USD), forfeiting on his promise, instead of having to at least try to explain the situation.

I want to forgive Mohammed’s ludicrous text messages as the psychological fall out of a severe water crisis — our human sense of helplessness when faced head-on with the consequences of living with fewer and fewer essential resources (and not just write him off as a jerk in any culture, anywhere).

The truth is, even with enormous tanks dependent on unreliable electricity to pump water from a few wells, even with my hopeful deposit to “secure” a water source for the duration, even with switches and home-gadgets to keep the illusion alive, the water crisis is real and impending, with no end in sight.

Surrounded everywhere by salty sea water, Zanzibar’s people daily risk their health and well being by living in an urban system totally ill-equipped to deal with population growth, globalization, industrialization, internal corruption, predatory (neo-colonial) tourism practices, and general, localized apathy to (ignorance of) the current condition.

Over 20 billion dollars from the African Development Bank, the United States, and Japan, among other countries have been poured (no pun intended) into better water management systems over the last five years, including boring new holes, designing new distribution stations, connecting new pipes, and attempting to manage raw sewage to reduce the chances of groundwater contamination. Last month, the World Bank approved a 38 million dollar credit to support urban infrastructural development, including systemic water access (The Citizen Feb. 25, 2011).

Still, no maji for most. There is clearly more demand than supply, and even with people (foreigners and local alike) being willing to pay for this precious source, the systems are not developed enough to accommodate this growing need. And even with occasional cholera breakouts,  gastro-intestinal funk, and other water-borne diseases, there are no, as of yet, concerted rain harvesting efforts (despite a bountiful rainy season) and very little awareness of water conservation or management (see: my downstairs neighbour, sweet Raki).

What’s going on here? What’s the maji hold-up? I know, I know, change takes time. And I’m not going to even try to unpack the story behind why Zanzibar struggles so much with fresh water, even after tons of aide money and attention has been paid to the burgeoning crisis. I don’t want ZAWA after me (Zanzibar Water Authority) or ZMC (Zanzibar Municipal Council).

But I do want access to maji in my life. And I do want the relative security of knowing that my friends, neighbours, colleagues and I won’t have to call in sick with cholera due to a shit river of overflowing sewage water, caused by flooding, stressed pipes, broke down septic tanks,  inadequate dumping sites, or non-existence water-purification treatment plants.

At present, only 45% of all solid waste is actually carried to a sole, rat-infested dumping site 12 kilometers out of town, with the other 55% left out in the open or dumped into the sea, threatening the safety of seafood consumption (Humanitarian News and Analysis, April 25, 2010).

It’s an ugly business, confronting our collective shit reality. As an American, it was relatively easy for me to ignore realities like water and waste. For the most part, it’s all tucked neatly away in water-treatment plants, our pipes and poles processing human waste in the quiet hours. Here, it’s a daily concern, a nagging, low-lying fever of crisis that plagues this picturesque, medieval style labyrinth of a city.

And water walks hand in hand with its equally perplexing sister, electricity.

When I arrived on Zanzibar last February, the entire island was in the midst of a power outage that would last a total of three months. Three months! (December 2009-March 2010). Chalk it up to a “technical failure on the submarine cable from the national grid in mainland Tanzania,” (The Independent February 6, 2010).

Three months without power, and without power, in most cases, no fresh, running water. No one complained about it – in a society that highly values extreme politeness, the Zanzibaris proudly coped with a life lived without electric light, using countless liters of gasoline to fuel noisy generators. Tourism suffered. Families suffered. The sick suffered. But no one protested.

Street Light in Stone Town, Recycled OKI Oil Container

Ironically, Stone Town was one of the first cities in the world to boast electric street lights, even before the British had figured out how to wire their towns. They were also one of the first cities in East Africa to have inter-city train transit from the town of Bububu (whose name is actually train-onamonapeia) to Stone Town. But decades after the first years of lamp-lit glory, electricity is a totally unreliable resource.

Power was eventually restored in March of 2010, but power outages are still common, directly affecting access to electric-pumped water supplies. Solar or wind power? Barely tapped explorations here on the islands.

Think about it for a second: hospitals with no water, schools with no water, jails with no water, hotels with no water, if it weren’t so real, it’d be the perfect setting for a sci-fi apocalyptic cult novel, the kind of nightmare found in Doris Lessing’s post-apocalyptic, nameless African cities.

But this place has a name: Stone Town is real and rich, vibrant and timeless, a city whose social fabric is being stretched and strained beyond capacity by competing social forces and needs. Which makes me wonder sometimes if I should be here – just one more person among the 100,000 tourists who come every year clawing at their slice of paradise.

But here I am, at least for now. It’s me and my Zanzibari boyfriend in the middle, Raki and her family downstairs, the Filipino karaoke-loving bachelors upstairs, all of us trying to live our daily lives in a city of 399,992 other Stone Town residents. Every person here has their own water story, their own troubling, tense relationship with water. People with names make any crisis realer than real.

There’s at least some consolation knowing that Stone Town is not alone. According to the World Water Day website, this is the first time in human history that most of the world’s population now live in cities. And many of the most stressed cities are found in developing countries. Stone Town sort of missed the message on World Water Day, but I did receive a bumper sticker from ZAWA that reads:

Kila tone la maji ni gharama. Tumia maji jwa uangalifu!

(Every drop counts, use water wisely!)

Okay! That’s a start, Zanzibar.

This Chicago lake-lady is truly humbled, and more aware than ever before of our world’s impending natural resource crisis.

The next time I charge my phone, switch on the water pump, press the remote ON button, read by lamp-light, listen to the radio, turn on the computer, I will say a little prayer for voltage, amps, resistance. The next time I take a shower, wash fresh vegetables, or my hair, or my dirty feet, I will say a little prayer for water. I will speak kind words to water’s molecules.

I love you maji.

*And I forgive you, Mohammed.





Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Michael Harrison March 30, 2011, 3:20 am

    I like your articles and writing style very much. You describe the reality very effectively with a lot of awareness of cutural issues- along with the frustrations they provide. You have lived there long enough to know that a bit of self censoring is necessary if you do not want the Immigration people to come around asking.

  • Amanda March 30, 2011, 3:29 am

    Michael, thanks. I’ve tried to be honest, attempting to share the frustrations & raise the questions. It’s tough to write about Zanzibar without worrying that I might offend someone, but I hope that if I write in the spirit of inquiry, with a genuine love for the country, and a desire for change that benefits local people, my intentions will be felt and understood. Cheers to you and thank you for reading!

  • Michael Harrison March 30, 2011, 3:44 am

    Hi Amanda.
    You write very nicely and with a lot of perception. There is a freshness and optimism in the tone as well which is very good and necessary too if one is 23.

    I have a personal interest since I lived in Tanzania for over twenty years, many of those in Zanzibar. We still have an interest there as you can see from the web site.

    I live in England now- a good country for old men- and think of Zanzibar every time the lights come on and the water jets from the shower.

  • Willie Galang March 30, 2011, 4:29 am

    I’m from Manila, The Philippines and reading articles like this one hit close to home. Where I live, it’s “normal” to hear from people in depressed areas in the metropolis to complain about lacking access to clean water. Even certain communities in far-flung provinces have the same problem. As we all know, it’s a global issue.

    I’ve had experienced days without running water before and it’s nightmarish. I couldn’t imagine going through the same ordeal for several months. And I can relate with the anger we feel on those who are wasteful of the resource. I’m still wishing powers-that-be on all parts of the world open their eyes to this matter, and go beyond the fanfare and photo ops of “World Water Day” observances.

  • Amanda March 30, 2011, 4:40 am

    Michael, thanks again for your message. Willie, I appreciate your perspective from the Philippines. I share your wish that the powers-that-be “go beyond the farefare and the photo ops” of World Water Day and actually take significant, visible action toward easing the water crisis. You’re right — living without water IS nightmarish, a daily struggle for many, and especially in urban centers, becoming more and more a reality. To be honest, I lacked real awareness of this issue until I moved to Zanzibar. Like I said, I’m humbled, and searching for solutions. Best, Amanda

  • Ted Agresta March 30, 2011, 4:42 pm

    Wonderful writing. I live in Elgin, outside Chicago. I find myself suddenly in paradise thinking about the shower I will take and brushing my teeth. I make cool aid whenever I want. I never before thought that was remarkable.

    One trivial thing (you will see what I mean; really trivial) you use the word “effect” when you mean “affect”. It is a tiny distraction to me, but one I know you, as a professional writer would not have me stumble over. I am sorry I took even this long on it.

    • Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein March 31, 2011, 3:54 am

      Ted, thanks for your comments & your correction. As a former English teacher, I’m humbled and always welcome grammatical direction. I caught it and just changed it! I also spent some time changing words like liter and neighbor from their British to American-style spelling!

      Yes, next time you stir that cold, sugary cool-aid, run water from the tap, brush your teeth, take a bath, water the lawn, etc., take a moment to ENJOY it. As Chicago-land area folks, it’s so easy to take water for granted. But everywhere, even in many parts of the U.S.’s South/Southwest/West, water’s becoming a major issue. Living even for a day without reliable water is truly a test of human creativity and tolerance. Water is life.

      Thanks again for your comments.

      Best, Amanda

  • sabrina shahdad April 1, 2011, 4:57 am

    I was born in stone town and lived as a teenager with my family in a most unspoilt environment where town did not experience such water problem, no Cholera or Maleria. Left Zanzibar 1978 as a teen and took with me the best of memories to Middle East and been here in Europe for past 33 years. I was sad to have to go back and see the Town has dilapidated in this day and age and my people surviving without any voice to raise but the faith that carry them through by the grace of GOD. As for me I was one of the lucky ones whom can visit and enjoy the company of my sister really learn to appreciate “The Human Rights” and value my education in which started in Zanzibar and boost up my knowledge and education here in Europe. The culpret here is the ” World Banks” hand money out to wrong hands its like allowing the cat to guide your fish.

    • Amanda April 1, 2011, 5:03 am

      Dear Sabrina,
      Thanks for writing and sharing your thoughts, memories, and opinions on your childhood in Stone Town. I am really glad you spoke to the way things have changed and the role that development / aide might play in actually inhibiting real progress/change. I agree that mismanagement of funds is a huge issue. I also want to reiterate that the people of Stone Town do very much care about their city and its current conditions (contrary to the false belief that apathy rules here). It’s just that many feel that they don’t have the power to make large changes, because, as you said, the money is in the paws of the cats, and not the gills of the fish!

      Nakutakia kila la kheri,

  • myra April 17, 2011, 11:51 am

    hi amanda.
    Really enjoyed your article. I recently moved to zanzibar and I was wondering if you know of any flats for rent, I heard in zanzibar there is really not a real estate, it all by word of mouth. I would really appreciate if you could give me tips on how to find a place. I have seen a few and they all look dingy old and unkempt, looking for something more modern. Thanks for any help

  • edoardo formento October 15, 2011, 4:01 am

    Hi Amanda
    I apreciate very much your article.I ‘m a colorectal surgeon in Turin Italy, I studied also at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester USA.
    I visited several times Stone Town ,I love it really much,I would like to come in Stone Town when I shall retire probably in some years.
    I can understand the water and the electricity problems,I visited the Pubblic Hospital in Stone Town and I have seen how is terrible the situation.
    As I ‘m a good endoscopist (I mean Colonoscopy etcetera..) it could be interesting for me to come for a support to the local doctors if they want for a while.

  • Theodore Gallianos November 22, 2011, 8:11 am

    very well described Amanda
    I would never imagine things being that bad in Zanzibar.
    Are you aware of wave energy desalination?
    Please visit http://www.ecocean-renewables.com for details
    If you have even small waves (1m minimum) it might be a solution