In the late 1970's I lived in the Nigerian city of Port Harcourt. The locals in this nominally English-speaking country pronounced it "Por-har-cor". The expatriate population called it “PHC”, which was the airline destination code. Port Harcourt had been the scene of some of the bitterest fighting in the enthic-based Biafra civil war of 1967-70, when an estimated one million Igbos died – mostly women and children, most from malnutrition.
The French transport company my husband worked for transferred us to Nigeria well after the war had ended but while the military government was still in power. By that time many Igbos, renown for being "clevah businessmans", had regained what they had lost during the civil war. The oil fields were in full production as the barrel price was at an all-time high. Unfortunately, none of this largess had been spent on repairing the public utilities structure of the city.
When Nigeria gained its independence in 1960 and "our British mastahs" left, the roads were paved, garbage was picked up, water flowed from taps, telephones functioned,
and the electricity worked at least 90% of the time. City trucks circulated through the residential sections two evenings a week, misting the gardens with insect repellent. It had been a West African version of paradise.
Elsewhere in West Africa, Jean-Alfred and I had always lived in a house provided by his employer. Arriving in Nigeria, we found that we were to have an apartment in a compound : a three-story building containing six apartments, all occupied by the expatriate management of the transport company. This building was set in a very large garden surrounded by a very high wall with a guard at the gate 24 hours a day. At the back of the garden was a row of six garages with individual servant quarters over each garage, much like carriage houses described in British novels.
We were told how lucky we were to be living in a compound. Apart from the security factor, we had the advantage of having a really top-notch generator. Big enough to furnish electricity for the entire compound, it had it's own little house in the garden. It was semi-automatic, meaning that someone had to run out and start it whenever the electricity failed, but it was not necessary for anyone to stay awake all night waiting for the power to return. The generator would shut itself off when that happened. Semi-automatic. One of the lower echelon company wives living on the ground floor had the key to the generator house and it was her duty to rush out and turn on the generator as needed.
I had lived long enough in West Africa so that I no longer thought it romantic to eat by candlelight : I was very grateful to have the generator. And especially grateful that it was Carole who had the key to the generator house and not me. Jean-Alfred and I had an apartment on the third floor.
It was a lovely apartment with big, high-ceilinged rooms. Wide balconies ran along the front and back lengths of the building, reached by french doors from either the bedroom or the dining room. There was no elevator but we were young, stairs were not a problem, and the houseboys carried the groceries and laundry up and down the stairs. It was lovely being high above the garden, our balconies surrounded by treetops. Lovely, until I learned about the water situation.
In the words of my headboy, "Watah for pipe, time-time, he no be deh."
To say that the public water supply was sporadic was an optimistic statement. Additionally, when it did trickle from the faucets, it was downright unhealthy. Yellowish-brown in color, it was loaded with silt and any number of invisible bacteria.
My kitchen was equipped with an earthenware filtering unit which allowed boiled water to ooze through clay "candles" set in a glazed "settling" jar and then drip into a glazed reservoir. Once the reservoir was full, the filtered water was decanted into empty whiskey bottles, the muck scrapped off the candles in the settling jar, and another three gallons processed. All drinking and cooking water had to be treated in this way.
The African staff scorned filtered water for drinking, saying it had no flavor, but they would appropriate any that was not locked up. There was a very active market in water, filtered or not. I had a "chop room" off my kitchen: a walk-in closet lined with shelves and a door that could be locked. All food supplies were kept there.
In poor countries it is often necessary to keep food stuffs under lock and key; this was the first time I had to guard the water supply.
The compound had several large concrete holding tanks in the rear of the garden. In theory, whenever the public water supply was operating, these tanks would fill and provide water for the periods when public water was not available. But the water pressure was very low and, even at the best of times, our third-floor apartment received only a trickle through the pipes.
I learned to keep the bathtub full, replenishing it whenever the water system was working. I learned to bathe African fashion, standing in the useless shower stall, soaping myself and then rinsing by tossing cupfuls of water over my shoulders. I learned that brushing my hair with cornstarch was almost as good as a shampoo. I cut my hair very short.
Nigeria has basically two seasons: the rainy season and the dry season. No spring, summer, fall or winter, just wet and dry. In the wet season the rainfall can be measured in inches per day, day after day. In the dry season rain is completely unknown for weeks on end. Laundry dries almost as soon as it is hung on the line. Water storage tanks remain empty.
We entered the dry season. The public waterworks simply stopped working. For days on end whenever I turned on a faucet the only thing I received was a hissing from the pipes. Gangs of little children roamed the streets, each "picken" with a red, blue or green plastic bucket on his or her head, looking for any puddle they could find.
Our tanks in the garden were dry. The compound received the visit of a water tanker once a month, each visit finagled by unspeakable amounts of black cash bribery. There was never enough water. Each of the servants seemed to have three wives (Nigeria is a Muslim country), and each wife seemed to have at least five children. They all came with their plastic buckets to "catch watah".
I was busy catching water myself. I had the advantage of electricity, which meant I could run the air conditioning units nonstop. Most of these units were positioned in the balcony walls, accessible from the apartment. A beaded chain such as is used for a bathtub plug was attached to the bottom of the A.C. unit and a plastic bucket positioned on the balcony floor, under the chain. Water would drip down the chain and collect in the bucket.
Water collected in this fashion is quite unadulterated, particularly by Nigerian standards. It can be used to wash lettuce or to steam vegetables. Then it can be filtered and heated for laundry or dishwashing. If saved, this laundry or dish water is adequate for washing floors. Finally, a bucket of dirty scrub water is sufficient to flush a toilet. In this way, each bucket of water collected from an air conditioning unit can be used four times.
This seemed to go on for an eternity. One day the company manager sent a large dump truck and a team of men to clean the water storage tanks in the garden. They took the covers off and shoveled out the assorted filth that had accumulated in the bottom of the tanks. The compound houseboys were watching this when the workers flushed an animal from one of the tanks. Everybody - houseboys and workers - chased after it. When it had been caught and killed, one of the boys told me it was a "rabbit" and they were going to roast and eat it. It was certainly not a rabbit, although it was a rodent of some sort, either a possum or a water rat.
I asked why the tanks were being cleaned at this particular time and was told: "Rain, soon-soon he go for to come."
A week or so later, one muggy oppressive day, there was a rumble of thunder followed by a crack of lightning and rain began pounding out of the sky. All the Africans stripped off their uniforms and ran into the back garden, shouting "WAAAA-TAAAAA, WAAA-TAAA, WAAAA-TAAAA HE COME!!!"
Many Africans do not wear underwear, but a number of the boys were thoughtful enough to wrap a dish towel around their lower torso, diaper fashion. For my part, I grabbed a bottle of shampoo and a bar of soap and headed for the front balcony. I was on the third floor and if someone out on the street wanted to get a face full of rain looking at me, it wasn't going to stop me from enjoying the first downpour of the rainy season.