Waiting for the water lord

Wednesday September 13th 2006

Stephen Davies

Queueing is not an activity typically associated with Africa, but at tap 28 in Djibo the barrels and buckets are lined up in strict single file beneath the fierce Sahara sun. The tap is set into a pillar on a wide concrete slab and is secured with a large white-hot padlock. In the shade of the acacia tree where Seydou and I are sitting the temperature is 45C.

At 3pm Mariama Diall, the first one in the queue, comes and stands by her bucket. Other people arrive in twos and threes and arrange themselves behind her, laughing and bickering. Most of them are teenage girls with town attitude and town hairdos. Some have dyed their plaits with henna and tied them in a big red ponytail; others have used lengths of plastic wire to make the plaits stand out from their heads in a halo of exclamation marks.

Mariama is 15 or 16 years old. Her T-shirt bears the motto "Keep him happy with Magi cubes". In spite of the heat all these girls and women are wearing ankle-length skirts. Modesty has long been a part of Fulani culture, but it has recently been enforced by legislation. The penalty for flouting the dress code is to sweep a long street with a short broom.

At this time of year keeping cool is a prime concern of all Djibo residents. Scorpions emerge from the baking sand and seek out cooler places, idling under the lip of a clay water pot or in the toe of a discarded plimsoll. The donkeys under the acacia tree stand in pairs, resting their heads on each others' neck - in this heat even supporting the weight of one's own head is a chore. Indeed between midday and four o'clock everything one does is an exertion - standing upright, blinking, sighing, murmuring "Naange na haadi katin " (Turned out sunny again). The north of Burkina Faso in May is profoundly unsuited to human existence, and even the locals never get used to it.

At 3.10 Seydou "Jom Ndiyam" ambles up to the tap. He peers at the girls through the gap in his voluminous turban. Seydou attaches a short hose to the spout, sprawls on the concrete slab, throws an arm over his eyes and falls asleep. Out in the bush Jom Ndiyam (literally "water lord") denotes a djinn living in a river or lake who must be placated in order to gain access to the water; here in town the term refers to Seydou and his colleagues at the water board. The urban water lord is altogether more benign and less mysterious than his rural spirit counterpart.

It's 3.11. Mariama steps up to the tap and turns it. Liquid life gushes into her plastic bucket. The other girls in the queue loll and chatter and squabble over their places impatiently.

It will be several hours before those at the back of the queue reach the tap; many of them will have to return home in the dark.

Mariama places a coin on the concrete slab next to the water lord. He still looks fast asleep, but she knows better than to test his vigilance by not paying. She lifts the bucket to chest height and someone helps her to manoeuvre it on to her head. It is full to the brim but not a drop is spilled. She moves off, hips swaying, one hand raised to steady the rim of the bucket.

When she gets home Mariama will pour this water into the round clay pot that sits in a dark corner of her hut. These pots are magnificent - the wet clay retains the water and brings it down to well below hut temperature, so that drinking a beaker of this cool water on a hot day is a real pleasure. Mariama's pot is hardly of Ali Baba proportions but it is big enough to keep her family going for a while. If they drink sparingly, she will not have to return to tap 28 until tomorrow afternoon. And if she is there by 3pm, her bucket might once again be first in the queue.

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