The Water and the Wait in Kenya

Was a difficult start to the trimester for me here as I battled various housing and postage dramas. Thinking I would get on to study early I ordered my textbook – Resolving Conflict by Tillett and French – quite early from the Armidale bookstore. I judge that my success rate with receiving packages here is 30%, not bad really. By my count the things missing are: 1. Make-up, sunscreen and hairdye from my younger sister; 2. Purple jeans from my younger sister; 3. A teddy bear from my Mum (oh you’d request the same, admit it…); 4. Various postcards and letters; 5. A replacement credit card; 6. And oh yes, the PIN code for that credit card.

Somebody in the post service is quite enjoying the generosity of my family (and bank). When you pay over $120 for a textbook + postage the same week you pay your Uni fees you do so with a lengthy, and firm, prayer it’s going to boost your success rate not lessen it. I was all excited when I got the little pink slip announcing the textbooks’ arrival a few weeks later. The trip into town to the General Post Office isn’t exactly a long one. It’s more…an adventurous one. It’s a process. A looong process.

The GPO is open from 8-5 Mon-Fri, exactly the hours I work. Going to town during the day involves either a couple of matatu trips (public transport vans with names like EXTREME and BLITZ QUEEN and BEND OVER and ALICIA that play blaring Luther Vandross as they hoon all over the footpaths) that are inevitably slow, crowded and confusing, or an expensive taxi drive which also takes a fair chunk out of your wallet and your day, traffic and the road system being very restrictive here. Like most people around the world, my work day is filled with meetings, discussions, emails, lost pens, phone calls, attempting to unjam the printer/secretly pretending the printer jam was not your fault, more meetings and wandering around the corridors of our office holding my mug in one hand and a tea bag in the other, asking everyone I meet ‘hakuna maji? Kwa nini?’ (there is no water? Why?) when the water doesn’t fall from the taps like it should and we must go to the tank out the back with the bucket, or the jug, or just the kettle itself if you are lazy like I am.

The water and power infrastructure here in Nairobi is haphazardly built and maintained. Water shuts off for no apparent reason and there are regular power cuts. A power cut in a cavernous supermarket packed with murmuring people is at first an eerie experience – hushed silence, breath-held and brief, like a small break out of the world. I recently moved apartments after the water issues in my previous place. Long and ridiculous tale but let’s just say it involved confusing complications with the downstairs tank, the roof-top tank, the sensor, the pipes, the expensive existing hot water system and the installation of a cheaper – but dodgy – hot water system, using up the water, the intermittent and unreliable Nairobi town water system, accidently leaving the pump on and cleverly flooding the downstairs neighbour’s yard while emptying both our tanks, the water sellers busy filling other parts of the city and a steady stream of young and inept plumbers. The brightest idea the enthusiastic plumbers had for fixing things was to break another part of the system to do so. There wasn’t malicious intent, just the merry cheeriness of a workman who’d been called out to fix a job and was damn well going to fix that job using all available materials on hand. The funniest part was when the hot water stopped due to air collecting in the pipes – the result of the town water cutting off and restarting a couple of days later (it didn’t affect the cold water because of the shiny-new-but-dodgy hot water system that was installed because of…well, I digress.) It took the plumbers and us some time to work out the problem, during which time it was cold showers and a frantic visit to the salon for a hair wash. The fact the previous plumber had taken off the hot water switch to fix another switch caused some further confusion. The new plumber attached a vent on the inside water pipe, with instructions to – after the town water was turned back on – turn the vent and wait. Easy plan. So the first time we listen in merrily, putting our ear up close to the vent and listening to the air escape, listening to a mysterious pause and an odd gurgling sound that’s coming closer…and closer…


The new apartment has had few water problems. There was that one weekend the workmen turned off the pump and forgot to turn it back on. After that there was only cold water for two days. Then only scorching hot water for one day. But then it was all good again.

So the adventurous trip to the GPO. It took me two weeks to get down there, I dedicated a whole afternoon to it and hired a taxi to do a round trip, at which time I discovered that the bookstore at Armidale had sent the wrong book. Frantic emails and nail-biting ensued as I prayed things would co-ordinate by July 1 and the textbook would also make it through the post. In miraculous news, it did, the hardest part of which involved taking a day off work and a five hour wait after DHL ascertained they had accidently delivered it to the incorrect, far distant DHL office and had to locate and motorbike it back to my local one. I think I used that time to catch a matatu in to the market and buy a shower curtain, with fingers crossed that it will not live out its life forlorn and useless like the one in my old place and like the copy of Psychological Assessment of Testing textbook that the bookstore kindly insisted I keep after the description of our postal system…

- Katy Carlan

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