System for Survival

Do me a favor, my Western-world-inhabiting readers. Go to your water tap and turn the red-dot dial (though, for my California readers, please put something underneath the tap to catch the water since you are in a drought and Shasta Lake is starting to look more like an archeological dig worthy of Indiana Jones). Revere the wondrous sight of its clean, giardia-free, crystalline cascade. Value the steam that comes off when it becomes warmer, the color shifting from clear to a white-hot stream. Know, in this moment, that I am jealously heaping old Yiddish curses upon you for your easy water access.

Life in a developing nation is an exercise in consciousness. And not environmental consciousness as we are taught in the States, like my borderline-hippie kindergarten where we learned to recycle glass containers and use fabric grocery bags and transform egg cartons to make paper, which sadly did not change my life in the way that Mrs. Owings, my lovable fruitcake of a teacher no doubt hoped. I don’t write Kigali Grocery Lists on recycled egg-carton paper. Daily life consciousness in East Africa is (pardon the melodrama) Survival Consciousness. Life does not operate with the same amount of ease, and water is the easiest place to see this- and the area where I became conscious quickly.

You can’t drink the water that comes from the tap. That seems like Travel 101, but the reality of not being able to ingest that seemingly-harmless, readily-available liquid is harder to understand. This means you…

  1. Brush your teeth with clean water in a cup
  2. Drink only bottled or boiled water
  3. Only use water for cooking that has been boiled (i.e. not just throwing a cup of water into thick soup unless you are going to bring it back to a boil)
  4. Keep your mouth closed during showering (I never used to think about it. Try it!)
  5. Avoid ice in drinks (welcome to Land of Lukewarm Fanta)
  6. Avoid fresh salads with thin-skinned vegetables that might have been grown from/washed in the local water

Lose this consciousness in your daily life and you risk a lovely host of parasites that are sure to turn your trip from exciting adventure to exciting adventures in developing world hospitals (the second least enjoyable site in Africa, after “prison”). My handy and frightening Lonely Planet Healthy Travel: Africa book (great reading pre-bed reading if insomnia is your goal) advises you avoid drinking straight tap water unless you are looking to contract gut infections, diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis, and/or typhoid (p. 90).

There are solutions for this, as any developing world inhabitant will tell you. You can buy all of your water bottled and lug it back to your domicile (heavy, awkward, and starts to get expensive). You can pay for an expensive service to deliver filtered water to your home (very expensive). You can get an expensive filtering system for your home water pipes (expensive and I’m pretty sure no one should touch those pipes). Or, you can do what I do: develop a system for stocking water.

I wrote earlier about this most magical of kitchen appliances, the speed-kettle. Commonplace in every country except America, which I blame more on our lack of tea-culture, as I think quick hot water for tea is its primary function. Here’s my little beauty, complete with a selfie and peak into my kitchen closet with its fancy dish-housing cabinet.


Every day, I boil multiple kettles of water. I boil a first kettle for making coffee with my French press and fresh Rwandan ground.


After that, I boil another kettle and put it in one of the pots too cool- that typically takes a while. When it’s closer to room temperature, I pour it into one of several bottles, including a metal canister and some reused plastic bottles. Those go in the fridge.


I use to go straight from the kettle to the metal canisters- and threw those in the otherwise empty freezer to speed up (“Americanize” & “innovate”) the process, but one overfilled canister left for too long became a third grade science reminder lesson: water expands when frozen. It can tear through cheap metal! So, thanks for the gift but I apologize for my gross misuse of it, English Language Programs!


If I do laundry later, I use the kettle to boil a pot or two, which allows me to soak whites in hot water. All my washing is done by hand, in a wide bucket set into the outside sink. I let it soak, then rinse with more hot water, ring out, and hang to dry outside.


When I shower, the kettle again fills up a pot or two. There’s no hot water in my house- did I mention that? Half bucket/half ice tap water showers are the way to go. Mrs. Owings would be proud! Conservationism at its finest! Below? Yeah, that’s my shower.


So there it is, my consciousness developed, my systems explained. It’s a reminder, as with everything else here, that life in the developed world moves faster not just because that’s how Americans/Europeans prefer life, but it’s the life that they have available to them. My method, though clumsy and time consuming, still beats daily trips to the well, a task which many African children, like many in Rwanda, are assigned for the well-being of their families. It’s hard to function on a basic level- to get to work, to go to school, to study, to cook, to eat, to see your family- when so much of life is taken with this survival-driven chore that is barely an afterthought in the developed world.

The point of this isn’t to drive guilt. It’s just to remind you, and myself, that privilege finds its way into the most basic aspects of life. And as I boil my water for coffee in the morning, I realize that one thing I appreciate about this place is it causes me to slow down, to think, to begin each day with gratitude.

And go turn off your tap. For now. Love & peace from Rwanda!


One thought on “System for Survival

  1. Hi Leanne, thanks for your insights on living with a permanent boil water notice! It actually reminds me of some places in rural Northern California I had to deal with in my work at the Dept. of Public Health. Boiling your water is the most effective way to render microbially contaminated water safe, but here are another couple of techniques to deal with the problem if the power goes out: 1) add 8 drops of bleach (16 if the water is cloudy) to a gallon of water, or 2) leave clear plastic water bottles of water in the full sun for about an hour. Also, you might try using chlorinated water to wash uncooked fruit or vegetables.
    Love, Carl L.


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