Third World Water { Excerpt }

During a layover in Amsterdam, my partner David and I slumped together on a modish, square sectional. We’d just gotten off the plane from Dar es Salaam. We turned on our cell phones and connected to the wider world and our lives previously in progress for the first time in two weeks. At once he sat up and said, “Oh no.”

David had been ambivalent about leaving Wisconsin in late January. Daytime highs were below freezing and nighttime lows around zero. He was convinced that our pipes would burst. Wanting badly to join the Tanzania trip organized by a friend of a friend, I assured him they wouldn’t. The house we built in the country ought to operate fine unattended. Homemade and quirky, however, it seems to demand special attention. Or, we indulge it. For heat, we burn logs from trees that we fell from our forest, then cut, split, and wheel into the living room on a custom-made cart as if delivering tarts to a gourmand. We have an alternate heat source, though. A pump can circulate hot water through pipes in our concrete foundation to keep the house warm. That’s what it was doing while we were in Africa—until two days before our Amsterdam layover.

“JJ says the cistern pump and in-floor heating pumps were squealing and grinding. He had to shut them off,” David said after reading a series of messages from the friend who was watching our place.

We scooted forward on the cushions and began to troubleshoot. The pumps had lost pressure. No water was coming up from the cistern. Nothing poured out of the taps. All symptoms pointed to a burst pipe. But the temperature in the house wasn’t that cold—56 degrees, JJ said. And he’d found no standing water. Was there a different kind of leak? Where? How? To his credit, David never said, “I told you we shouldn’t have left the house in winter.” In fact, after the shock subsided, we were both more curious than anxious, even though it would take another day to get home and light a fire, which meant the house would cool further and pipes could still crack.

“Hakuna matata.” No worries, goes the consoling refrain from “The Lion King.” Tanzanians actually said that. The safari guides said it when we were late. Craftspeople emblazoned it on ebony or beaded bracelets. But since every Tanzanian we met worked in tourism, we didn’t know whether “Hakuna matata” was part of their job or if they really felt it, “No worries.” But no one seemed to rush or expect problems to be solved easily.

We had been saying it, too. We’d seen rhinos, elephants, impalas, hippos, and giraffes. We watched a just-born zebra take its first steps and a lion guarding the wet bones of a just-devoured wildebeest. We had abandoned our worrisome selves 9,000 miles away. “Hakuna matata,” we said in the Amsterdam airport as we gave up trying to figure out the problem with our water. For the rest of the layover, we played a Swahili language game that David downloaded to his phone. We leaned back on the sectional and memorized the words for nose, eyes, and mouth.

* * *

Almost two weeks earlier, on our first day of touring in the Land Rover, one of our safari guides, Robert, asked, “Tell me, how is Africa different than you thought it would be?”

“It’s so green. Wetter than I expected,” I said.

Fellow safari-goers agreed. “Lush.”

“Yes! That’s what everyone from America says! You think every place in Africa is dusty and dry.” He laughed and waved toward the passing landscape.

We were in the verdant northern part of Tanzania. Trees flashed emerald leaves. Savannah grass was khaki. Frogs clustered in ravines overhung with dense vegetation exactly as we might find them in Wisconsin.

Robert drove us to Arusha National Park, which spread out in the morning shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro. There, a young woman wearing olive-green military garb and carrying a battered, ancient rifle (in case of lions, she said) led us on a hike. We crossed a footbridge and peered into a narrow, pristine river. Nothing clouded our view of rounded, beige rocks on the river bottom. No bugs or weeds marred the surface. Then I realized something about the stream was strange. It looked as fake as a water feature in a miniature golf course.

Our guide said, “Fish can’t live in it. You can’t drink it.” High levels of naturally occurring fluoride, leached from volcanic rock, prevented the river from sustaining life. But rural Tanzanians do drink river water. The excessive fluoride marks their otherwise bright teeth with wavy, brown lines, like scrimshaw depictions of the hills around them. No one mentioned the diseases caused by other contaminants, or the fact that 23 million Tanzanians—four times the population of Wisconsin—lack access to clean water.

Of course, we sightseers wouldn’t drink from the rivers. Nor did we drink any well water or even, where it existed, tap water. For twelve days we drank only bottled water, the Kilimanjaro brand, which is owned by the Coca-Cola Company. Its label told us, “The water in this bottle originally fell as snow or rain on top of Africa’s highest mountain, Kilimanjaro.” Bottled water, standard for tourists, is beyond the reach of most Tanzanians. Nevertheless, Coca-Cola is betting on big growth in the country, recently investing $187 million in its Tanzania bottling operation. And Tanzania’s a minor market. In 2015, the year of our trip, bottled water was expected to surpass soft drinks to become the world’s most consumed packaged drink. A majority of this growth, Forbes reported, “will come from emerging markets such as China, Mexico, and India—where clean tap water is not as easily available.”

David and I balked at drinking bottled water. Privatizing water, selling it, always struck us as a scam. In the U.S., we understood, what’s in the bottle is no better than tap water, which is free and convenient. We regarded bottled water as a source of profit for corporations and a source of trash after the water’s consumed.

Our second safari guide said, “Don’t feel bad. I can’t drink the water in your country.” During a weeks-long business trip to Boston he drank only bottled water. He told us, “I’m not used to your bacteria.”

Published in The Chaffin Journal, 2018.