Interviews on Water Use Are Thirsty Work

From The New York Times “Scientist at Work – Notes from the Field”

Published September 1, 2010

By Michael Mascarenhas

Fieldwork Begins

We will be surveying three of the 17 sectors (Burega, Cyinzuzi and Ntarabana) in the District of Rulindo, in the Northern Province of Rwanda. The area of each sector is approximately four to eight square miles. The Ntarabana sector is further divided into three cells: Kiyanza, Kajevuba and Mahaza. My team will be conducting baseline assessments in the eight umudugudus (villages) that are located in Kiyanza.
As can be imagined, it took a long time to coordinate cars, people, food and other supplies on the first day. Nine vehicles began arriving between 6 and 7 a.m. Each team was then paired with a driver and vehicle. As team leader I was responsible for ensuring that lunches were packed for all team members and driver, a case of water was packed in the vehicle, the data collector was fully charged and safely stored, a list of phone numbers was on hand and the daily sign-in sheet was correctly completed.
We finally arrived at the Ntarabana office around 9, where I was introduced to the executive secretary. Our team then had a discussion to review the villages to be surveyed, determine the number of household samples in each village and decide on a route for the day, where to meet up for lunch, how to conduct the survey, and when and how to leave the field site. Once we had a plan we jumped back into the jeep and headed down the mountain.
Michael J. Mascarenhas
All was fine until we turned left down a narrow and steep trail, the type avid mountain bikers like to cruise down but cars avoid. We slowly proceeded down the tiny ridge and eventually came to a stop where the trail was impassable. There we got out of the jeep and, on foot, began the long descent to the first umudugudu, Nyamurema.
Michael J. Mascarenhas. The End of the Trail.
Our first interview occurred at 10:41 a.m. with Johanna Unizeyimana, the female head of a household of six.
During the interview I found out that the Unizeyimana family collects water from an unprotected spring 650 yards from their house (the Rwandan government standard for distance traveled to gather water is 500 meters, or 547 yards). The family uses two jerrycans of water each day to cook, bathe and wash dishes and clothes. Each jerrycan holds about five gallons and weighs 44 pounds when full.
That means that someone from the family, usually Julienne, has to leave house and children to go on a short hike each day (in all weather conditions) to fetch water. In addition to travel time, Julienne usually has to wait at the spring for at least 60 minutes, with much longer wait times in the summer or dry seasons. In total, it could take her two to four hours each day to procure her daily supply of drinking water.
The conditions of the Unizeyimanas’ water source have recently started to change. “There is less water than before,” Johanna says to my translator, Jean Bisco. And soil erosion has recently started to adversely affect the water quality (making it dirtier), particularly in the rainy seasons. When possible, water used for drinking only is boiled; however, this is not always the case, as there is simply not enough time in the day. The demands of village life ensure that the amount of water the Unizeyimanas collect every day is not enough to meet their daily water needs, and so they are forced to live with insufficient water each day.
I thank the Unizeyimanas for taking time out of their busy lives to help me understand the challenges they face in accessing drinking water, and we begin to trek to our next participant’s house.
News has traveled that there is a muzungu (white man) in the village. Children start to run out from houses to see the muzungu. From all corners of the village I hear “muzungu, muzungu, muzungu,” as children continue to run out. Many of these children have never seen a foreigner, and certainly many more of them have not had one in their house. At each house we visit I am welcomed warmly. Efforts are made to ensure that I am comfortable (a chair is usually brought out or a room quickly rearranged) regardless of what the family is doing when I arrive.
Michael J. Mascarenhas interviewing a head of household.
Our second interview is with Brenda Mukampairwa, the female head of a household of four. The Mukampairwa family collects water from a protected spring catchment 330 yards from their house. The family uses one jerrycan of water each day to cook, bathe, wash dishes and clothes, and water their animals (a cow and a goat). The Mukampairwas treat their drinking water with Sur’Eau, a type of disinfectant. Like the Unizeyimanas, the amount of water they collect every day is not enough to meet their daily water needs. We finish the rest of the interview while Brenda tries to put her infant son down for an afternoon nap (although he resists). I thank Brenda and head out to look for our third participant.
It is now close to 2 in the afternoon, and the effort of hiking in the intense sun is starting to become more noticeable for me. I like to consider myself to be in shape, but these conditions have already started to test the limits of my fitness. I wonder how difficult it must be to till the soil (done by hand with hoes) and engage in all the other laborious activities that village life demands (building and maintaining shelter, and other activities associated with subsistence farming), in addition to fetching water each day. The thought strains my imagination. Being invited inside is a very much-welcomed respite.
Florence Mukabarinda is a local artist and the female head of a household of four. She invites us to sit around the table in her living room. The Mukabarinda family collects water from an unprotected spring about 220 yards from their house. The family uses 10 jerrycans of water each day (53 gallons), which is enough to drink, cook, bathe, wash dishes and clothes, clean the house and water their animals (a cow and a goat). Like the Mukampairwas, the Mukabarindas treat their water with Sur’Eau. During the interview Florence leaves the living room and returns with a large bottle of banana beer, a local alcoholic beverage made from fermented bananas and sorghum flower. We complete the interview and continue our visit with candid and warm conversation (always translated twice). I thank Florence Mukabarinda for her gracious hospitality and leave her cool house to join the heat of the afternoon sun.
In total we complete six interviews on our first day. We arrive back at our rendezvous spot in the late afternoon. I am tired, dusty and, of course, thirsty. We drive back to Kigali, where I immediately take a much-needed shower. We are planning to meet as a group to discuss our first day in the field. After the meeting we have dinner at a restaurant, and I return to my room exhausted but looking forward to more fieldwork.

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