November 13, 2008

After-school chores

If you looked at the child in this picture, would you say it’s a girl or a boy?
She’s a girl, four years old, named Sibahle. (For about six months I was convinced she was a he until she got sick and came into the clinic and I saw her medical records.) In this picture she is engaged in a daily ritual at Itipini, hauling water home for all the usual needs: washing, cooking, drinking, bathing, etc.

Girls begin to learn to carry water at age four and Sibahle’s jug is much smaller than what other children carry. These girls, for instance, are in about sixth grade and get the full-sized buckets, which weigh about 40 pounds.
I took the picture of Sibahle the other week because I was struck by what I saw. Here was a young child, small and underweight for her age, struggling under the weight of her jug. She made it about ten feet, stopped for a rest, and then carried on another ten feet. She had a long way to go. And she has this to look forward to, several times a day, every day, for the rest of her life.

It is cliche to talk about the challenge of carrying water in Africa (and parts of Alaska and the Canadian north, lest we forget the unequal access to resources in our own home countries). I see people doing it all the time and only occasionally, like with this picture of Sibahle, do I stop to seriously consider it. Have you ever carried water on your head? I have. What strikes me every time I try it is how much of a strain it is on my neck and shoulders and back. I can feel the pressure and it starts hurting right away. No wonder so many women come into the clinic looking for pain pills.

But what I found myself thinking of when I saw Sibahle on this particular day was all things children in the rich world get to do because they don’t have to carry water every day. They read books, play sports, do their homework, and just generally enrich their lives (though a fair amount of them fill that time with a lot of TV-watching and internet-surfing). I’m all for “character”-building chores (in the abstract only, of course, when it involves me) but when chores take over one’s entire existence some sort of line has been crossed, I think. And that’s just one of the many tragedies of daily life here.

It’s not only girls who have to get water. Sometimes boys do as well, though the ones in this picture got a cart to help out. It’s not clear how much it helped them on this hill, though.