Sir, Some Water, Please?

I had a week of lonely moments after my mother left us here to journey back to the land of modern civilization. The majority of my time after she left was taken by managing to live without running water. I reside in Koans Estates, with my boss Kathleen. It is grand looking community if you don’t get to close to anything. Rows of stucco houses with iron rod gates line the road and outside the gated establishments stand half built cement houses inhabited by squatters and families. That seems to be the case inside the Estates as well, since many homes are not yet purchased and once the local workers finish building them, they take it upon themselves to move in until they are properly claimed.

My mother and I returned from our adventures in the Volta Region to waterless faucets. So I pulled out the buckets from the pantry and took them around the corner to the spigot that is owned by the Estates Manager. I managed once to carry a bucket back to the house on my head, just like the other locals do, but Ghanaians must have flatter skulls because I had a bruise on the top of my head for a week after just one bucket. So I recruited the local squatters to assist me with the other two. For almost two weeks, I lived my life three buckets at a time. Of course Kathleen and I had to share the containers. I now have bucket showers down to a science. I can do it using only two full large water bottles per shower. (Quite the conservationist, aren’t I?) Running water now comes and goes. If I am feeling the need to pamper, I pull out our one large pot and heat some water on the stove. We don’t have water heaters here, but most of the time I don’t see a need for one. After sweating and collecting dust in the African heat during the day, a cold shower refreshes ones spirit.

As I said before, the Estates look quite luxurious if you don’t get up to close, but once you look at the details, you see that construction here is almost always done half-assed. The doors in our homes were built in without weather stripping so when the torrential rain comes it slides all the way to the middle of the hall. The interior paint looks like it was done by a drunk monkey, splashed here and there without order or intent. When we moved in there was a hornet’s nest crafted carefully in the corner of our living room. I alerted the landlord, and his simple reply was, “Yes, but the hornets don’t live there anymore, so no need to worry.” Ummm… not the point! But this first experience with the management of the estates was just one small example of the way many people think here. Why should someone care if we have a sewage system or running water when they don’t have any in their own home? And why should we complain when we are living with a nice cement roof over our heads and tiles on the floor when most people sleep in the dirt? And lastly, if a bug’s nest in the corner of a house poses no immediate threat to your health, why ask for it to be removed?

I may seem to complain about the standard of “customer service” in Ghana, but it has been an important lesson to observe the difference in how culture operates and affects the productivity and progress of a society. Whether it is good, bad or ugly is up to the person who interprets the behavior. To the managers of the estates, I am a bit of a snob who expects every modern luxury that is paid for, such as nest-free houses and running water at the snap of a finger. This became a discussion of race relations on the day after Christmas.

Two days straight without water, again, and no one to help us with the buckets either. Usually Kathleen is the one to take up arms, but this time it was yours truly. By 2pm, I had called the manager three times, explaining that I understood the pump was broken, or what have you, but could you please help me get some buckets filled so that we could shower and do the dishes. With music in the background he shouted, “Listen, we are having a party at the office, no one wants to come help you today. Maybe tomorrow we get some water, yes?” Then he hung up on me. NO! No, no, no. I took my three plastic buckets and marched right to his door in my plaid boxer shorts and PJ T-shirt. He was sitting at his desk drinking a beer and laughing with this worker buddies. I dropped the buckets at his feet and said nothing.

That’s when it all went to hell. He put his beer down and asked,”What is this? You think you can push me around like some slave?” At the mention of the word ‘slave’ I could feel the tension rise in the room. He continued, “Order me here and there? You have NO respect for the black man.” I thought my eyes were going to pop right out of my head. I explained to him that this had nothing to do with the color of his skin or his gender. It had to do with him being responsible for the people of the estates by providing such basic necessities like water and electricity. This fell on deaf ears as he continued to elaborate on how “us” whites think we can just run the show. As the conversation progressed the decibels of our voices grew until two men came behind me, picked up the buckets and asked me to leave. I walked back to the house with anger boiling tears in my eyes and plopped down on the couch,  tucking my cravings for a shower underneath me. Five minutes later there was a knock on the door and I open to find three plastic buckets filled on my doorstep, like three small gifts.


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  1. Nancy says:

    Wow, Sy, you are having to make huge adjustments…we are thinking about you and hope things get better, but are impressed with your doing all you can! Love you, nancy

  2. lila says:

    You go girl! I can only imagine how infuriating it must be for you to have to try and bite your tongue in the face of the race or gender card being “pulled” for something that has nothing to do with skin color or what kind of anatomy you have. It is also sad to realize that attitudes like this are what hold them back from the socio-economic progress that they could benefit from.

    In the meantime, I hope you can master how to get one of those pieces of fabric on your head to facilitate carrying buckets back and forth. Here is a tutorial from Gambia


    I will start working on this skill with the girls! LOL

    Love and Peace to you!

  3. Dan says:

    Read your blog today. Sorry to hear about your experience re: “Water Please”. Don’t quite know what to say or think about the race card being played. I am however quiet certain that it was all about him and not at all about you. It may not be that uncommon of a response. I”m interested in what your Ghanaian and ex-pat friends have to say. It must have been very painful to hear his response. Sounds like you did the best that anyone could do in such circumstances.

    His wages may be so low that he regularly expects to get paid extra for the jobs he is paid to do. In Mexico, the police are paid almost nothing, so they expect and get Mordida’s i.e. little bites from the people they stop or cite. It’s the same when you go to a government office. The workers all want a little extra just for doing their job. Anyway that’s been my experience in Mexico. Not necessarily good or bad but just what it is.

    I’d love to share some words of wisdom, but I have so few, that there are none to share. Maybe this will be the start of a great friendship! Stranger things have happened.


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