The other night, as we were driving home, I saw them. They were startled against the glare of our land cruiser's head lights shining suddenly into their eyes. The dust and dark made it difficult to make out their forms, huddled together at the side of the road. I could just make out bodies of five children, probably ages 5-12. They were hard to see, blinded by the light. But I could make out their jerry cans, bright yellow, glowing in the haze.
This is my fifth dry season in Bukavu. Each one has been worse than the one before. Last season it was really awful. It's hard to believe that we sit on a lake (one of three potentially exploding lakes) but there isn't a reliable source of clean water for the population that can provide enough consistent water when the rains stop falling. It's hard to imagine that the gov't hasn't invested in providing a water treatment plant to access water from the lake (like they do in Goma). Or even an NGO. Last year when it got to August, the city was completely out of water. For about one week, there wasn't water, even at night. (Which means more and more people access the lake water, which increases the risk of cholera outbreaks). For us, because we have about 20 jerry cans and we can search in our big land cruisers for water we made it through. And we have an elaborate water storage system and cisterns as well. We did get to the point of having to pull water out of the lake for washing clothes and we were just about to have to get water from the lake for drinking water.
For the rest of the city it wasn't so easy. I have to back up a bit. Bukavu was never built for close to a million people. It probably was built for 100,000. The city is surrounded by the lake and the mountains. The population in the territories where there has been a lot of violence have fled to the city over the years and lived in the hills or squeezed into the valleys. (Or the poverty chases them to higher hopes in the city.) Houses and shanties were built over the existing water pipes until no access was available to them anymore. The current situation is most of the population, living in the overpopulated areas of the city (most of the city), do not have water coming into their house. They may actually have the plumbing to have it come into their house, but it isn't functioning. So each neighborhood usually has a common water source (usually a faucet) that all the people use. Water is hauled in bright yellow jerry cans (by the children most of the time, but also by the women).
By the time the rains stop and dry season starts, most of the water in the the public water sources that provide water to the neighborhoods stops during the day. The family is left to search for water. Often this means sending children to the local neighborhoods (that may have water) to stand in line with the jerry can and wait their turn to collect water (this is during the day). Then the family uses that one jerry can for the entire family for the next 24 hours (or until they can find water again) for every water need they have.
The above is a good scenario. More often, the children will go to the neighboring water source, wait all day and never get water (the line it simply too long, the water comes too slowly). Then the city begin to fill with children walking the streets at night. You see them everywhere walking through the dust, with their jerry cans in small groups, searching for water.
Our friend recounts this story. Dry season had started. Her neighborhood no longer had any water. She sent her children out to get water in a local area that she had heard there was water. It was the morning. She went to work, her children went to search for the water with their jerry cans. They came to the neighborhood. There was a line of hundreds of children and women waiting with jerry cans. Her children sat in their spot in the line and waited. All day. At one point, a pick up truck came, full of jerry cans. The man in the truck, paid the guard of the water source a sum of money and the man filled his jerry cans for the rest of the day. The children went home without water. This happened often. So, my friend did what others were doing. The family went to bed and then at 2am, the children were woken up. They were sent out with the jerry cans into the dusty night to search the city at night for water. Why don't the adults go? Because they work during the day. And if you lose your job you cross the line from livable poverty to quiet desperation where you no longer have food to feed your family (let alone water).
So, you do the unthinkable. You send your children out into the dark and dangerous night. Into the dust and cold air. You pray they return. And you pray they don't return empty handed.
It is an eery experience. Driving in the city at night. Watching the children wander through the dusty streets with their yellow jerry cans. A city of children at night.
Dry season in Essence, one of the more crowded neighborhoods. People live and work on the edge of this road which looks like this during dry season as it is a main route to many areas.