One of my favorite stories from Africa was about a water well and a crazy series of events that I couldn’t have made up if I tried!
Once I became a member of staff for my volunteer organization, one of my many responsibilities was to oversee and dictate chores for the day. Motivating a teenager to mop the community floor was as easy as convincing your cat to play fetch… slightly entertaining, if irritatingly so.
In a house with 20 plus volunteers, you can imagine there were a wide variety of chores needing attention on a daily basis. Sweeping floors, cleaning kitchen, doing dishes, making breakfast, lunch and dinner, taking out the trash and compost, cleaning the bathrooms and toilets (everyone’s favorite), and organizing books and gear, to name a few.
The older volunteers, the ones with jobs back home and kids, I didn’t worry about. But the younger crowd, the twenty something’s in gap year from University took the most work.
Just convincing some of them to get out of bed could be a challenge, but luckily I had help. Our Kenyan community was largely Muslim and thus contained plenty of Mosques for worship. The central Mosque was this striking, tall building with intricate blue-tiled mosaics inside. And every morning at sunrise, very loud bullhorn speakers, squealed with feedback and grainy audio for the call to prayer. IT… WAS… LOUD, and impossible to sleep through. And if that didn’t wake you, the goats did!
Many of the locals kept goats and every dawn, I suppose due to the absence of any close by roosters and feeling responsible to rouse the town, had to make terrible noises. I mean God awful screams! The goats weren’t penned in, so they roamed everywhere and just belted out blood-curdling, murderous gurgling sounds, like they were being tortured! When I first arrived in Kenya, I thought they were being slaughtered, right outside my window! I got up to look only to find one sitting calmly with its eyes closed, screaming to high heaven. “You suck goat. You suck.”
For the most part anyway, the daily process of divvying up house chores was straightforward. Your name was on a list for the week so there weren’t any surprises. You would think, but occasionally I’d get a Vol complain his name was filled in for bathroom duty, 5 days in a row- the victim of a cruel prank.
But this story is about the strangest, most bizarre sitcomy turn of events of my time in Kenya.
One day, a volunteer came to me complaining the water had a bad smell.
The water for the showers, toilets and sink where we brushed our teeth, came from a well outside. Out back, about 30 feet from the house and just as deep- the well had been dug and lined with coral rag stones for reinforcement, and topped with a precarious and rusty, old bit of tin roof. Nearer the house we had an electric pump that would draw water from the well and fill a tank on our building. I knew this process well because ants were constantly chewing at the wiring and shorting the system. Electricity must taste pretty good, I guess. And seriously, how many stories do I have involving ants?!
That evening at dinner, the subject of smelly water came up again and more volunteers confessed to having known about the stink for days!
“Really?” I said. So doing what any good leader would do, I took it under advisement and trusted it would sort itself out.
The next morning however, the house was in an uproar. Not only was the smell worse, but it was coming now from the sink too! “And that’s where I brush my teeth!” I thought, considering that now this was personal.
I told a few other staff members after breakfast and 3 of us went to investigate.
Parting a herd of goats as we went, we reached the water well out back and I lifted the lid to have look. I had no idea what I was expecting. All I knew was the water smelled awful and here is where it came from.
It was dark down there. Too dark to see anything. But something wasn’t right. We could make out the faintest signs of debris or something down there, floating in the water, 30 feet below.
Eager and ingenious minds were at hand as we hastily grabbed a bucket, some rope and rock for weight and began a fishing strategy, to remove whatever was floating in our water supply.
After a few attempts, we began to lift out soppy buckets full of rotting vegetable matter, and grey water. Old bananas, cucumber peels, pineapple rinds, eggs shells, potato skins… “What the?!”
I hurried back to the house and announced the discovery, only to have a polite, older and soft spoken Dutchman step forward and clear his throat with “Ahem.”
Turned out, this city-born business man with thin rimmed glasses and air of intelligence and common sense, had been emptying our compost down the water well for a week!
“You have got to be kidding me!” I said, more astounded than mad. His ignorance was apparent as he apologized profusely but still received the blunt, good-natured ridicule from the other volunteers he so deserved.
I went back to the well, shaking my head in disbelief, to help my friends fish out the remaining compost.
Just as I was about to call and update my supervisor and relay our findings, I looked down the water well and noticed something… was moving.
With a furrowed brow, I glanced over at my colleagues to read their face and discern if they saw it too. “Something is definitely moving down there, right?”
Followed by a sarcastic stance and countenance that said, “What the fuck now?”, we lowered the bucket down into murky waters, waiting in pained anticipation for whatever it was, to swim over the lip so we could haul it out.
To everyone’s absolute amazement, we pulled out a Giant Pouched Rat. A nocturnal mammal of comparable size and shape to an opossum, but with a cheeks-full-of-walnuts look about them.
We emptied him on the ground, waited for him to gain his strength, no telling how long he had been treading water, all night I suppose, and watched him scamper off into the jungle.
I didn’t have time to process this before we pulled out a dead one next. Two rats!
A FREAKING DEAD GIANT POUCHED RAT! “You have GOT to be kidding me!”
The realization suddenly hit me like a bolt of lightning, “Oh come on, I brushed my teeth with this water an hour ago!” We all had. Dead rat water. And all the while our volunteers have been showering in this. They are NOT gonna like this.
Vegetable mush and dead rats removed, we retired for lunch to crowd source a plan of not only how to tell the volunteers, but how we were going to disinfect the water.
Just wait, it gets better!
Revitalized now and with a new-found sense of determination, I and the other staff members rounded the corner of the Vol house, making our way to the water well.
Our high spirited conversation snapped to an abrupt halt however, when we heard this far-off echo like, “Baaaahhhhhh.”
I knew in an instant, as my brain quickly pieced together, what had happened. While off to lunch, we forgot to put the lid back on the well!
We walked slowly now, reluctantly willing to confirm our suspicions… but sure enough, once there we peered down the hole to find a damn goat, maniacally splashing and screaming it’s head off!
He had fallen in somehow, while we were gone.
“Ok seriously, you have got to be fucking kidding me!!!”
The goat was too big and heavy to fit the bucket we had been using, and time was against us. We didn’t want him drown, so we needed a better plan. A bigger plan. We needed help.
It was go time. We scattered in all directions, looking for locals who could help us. Word got around fast and soon a rescue operation was under way.
In no less than 30 minutes, we had a crowd of maybe 40 people, all standing around the well, talking and watching the parade of frantic and sweaty, stressed out foreigners clamoring over a goat in a well. It was quite the scene, let me tell you.
After conferring with a few men, it was decided we needed a ladder, and the only one in town long enough to reach the goat, was from the central Mosque.
I sped walked behind a handful of very strong, helpful Kenyan guys, crowd in tow, to the Mosque to retrieve what was to be the most stout, impossibly heavy solid steel ladder I’d ever seen. It took 7 grown men, plus myself trying to appear useful, to lift it overhead and bring it back.
And a 30 foot ladder did not fit easily around the tight corners of homes built in a small village, is all I’m saying.
Once back to the well, our crowd of spectators had doubled. I waited for the men to lower the ladder down, but they stopped short, and faced me.
It took me a minute using my broken Swahili to infer that the men would go no further unless payment was first taken care of.
“AAARRRGGGHHHHH!” We spent the next five minutes arguing over who got paid, how much, who got to help… “But I helped carry the ladder?” one would chime in or, “But it’s my cousin’s goat, I should be the one…” it was a nightmare.
Finally it was decided, two men would get paid, I don’t remember how much, a few schillings, to rescue the goat, who was still floundering in putrid waters.
They slid the ladder down and one man climbed all the way in, with the well still reverberating the desperate cries of the trapped goat.
Moments later he resurfaced, triumphant with the goat in his hand, holding it by the back of the neck, as a lioness does her cub.
The crowd erupted in cheers and clapped ecstatically. The goat shook its coat dry and walked off to immediately resume eating and pooping again. Good for you buddy.
Exhausted by the day’s excitement, it was time for some much deserved refreshments at the local pub.
We ended up dumping gallons of bleach down the well and running the water for two days before anyone could use it again. The house just showered in the ocean for the meantime.
After that, the compost and water well were clearly marked.