Before I moved to Sudan in 2008, I imagined that I would survive on daily infusions of bottled water. My roommate in Sudan, Andy, quickly pointed out the economic shortcomings of my plan. As the average person should drink 8 glasses of water each day to remain adequately hydrated, and the average person in a desert climate needs double that, I was looking at eight 16oz bottles of water per day. Each bottle cost 1 Sudanese pound (roughly 50 cents American). Seems cheap, right? But it adds up to a serious latte factor. At 8 pounds a day, I would be spending 240 pounds a month just on water–nearly half of my volunteer stipend for stuff that was probably from the backyard hose.
I wondered if I would be able to develop a stronger stomach, such as the western Sudanese from Darfur and Kordofan, who often couldn’t afford the bottled water either. Andy told me that when he first arrived he was at a picnic with some Darfuri friends who brought him a glass of water, which he readily drank. It was only afterward that he bothered to ask the source. “Right over there,” came the reply, his friend pointing to the Nile. Andy was sick for half a week. Achek Deng, subject of the Dave Eggers book What is the What, talks about returning to Sudan after living in America for many years and drinking straight from the Nile. He learned then that his body was no longer impervious to those sorts of bacteria.
In the capital of Khartoum, the public water was good. Billions of dollars in foreign aid for infrastructure development had to go somewhere, after all. The safety standards weren’t quite as high as those of the West, but it couldn’t have been worse than drinking the lead in DC water. In some locations, water was pumped directly from the Nile, in which I once saw a dead goat floating, but most city people didn’t drink this.
In some locations, water was pumped directly from the Nile, in which I once saw a dead goat floating, but most city people didn’t drink this.
It was the prospect of spreading those same resources to the rural areas that gave the Sudanese government trouble. In Sudan, like in so many other developing countries, rural development is far too difficult, and the people adjust to the government’s impotence by simply migrating to the urban centers. There is the capital, and there is everywhere else. Even in the city centers, however, the government was unable to cobble together some basic services, most notably trash collection. While one could spot the occasional lonely garbage truck patrolling the city, its purpose was different from its Western counterparts, as trash cans—either public or private—were conspicuous in their absence in Khartoum. Instead, people threw their rubbish on the street, where it was swept to another street and then another until it was eventually picked up. When it was finally collected, it would be burned. Including the plastic water bottles. Nothing is quite as noxious as the scent of burning plastic, which was carried by the wind across the river into my room at night. Another point for tap water.
People threw their rubbish on the street, where it was swept to another street and then another until it was eventually picked up. When it was finally collected, it would be burned. Including the plastic water bottles.
While it’s easy to be critical, it’s also important to understand that Westerners have a different relationship with their garbage. We pay taxes to the city to have it taken off of our hands and shipped somewhere where we don’t have to see or smell it. With such an arrangement, it hardly matters if we have one bin full of trash or two. It ceases to be our problem as soon as we put it on the curb. In Khartoum, however, everything that could not be consumed became a part of the immediate environment—plastic wrappers, tissues, paper plates, bottles, tin cans, old clothes, all of it literally thrown on the ground because there was nowhere else for it to go. In this environment, I opted for the glass Pepsi bottle that could be reused; I drank from the communal water cup; I did everything I could to ensure I didn’t dirty my environment any more than it already was. Trash is not nice to look at, but when you have to look at it, you think twice about making it—and about drinking from that plastic water bottle.