“Water is life. Unless you live in Bwaise. If you live in Bwaise water is death.” —local saying
BWAISE, KAMPALA—Some stories can only be told backwards. This isn’t one of them. Let me start at the very beginning.
I met Moreen on a bus downtown. I was lost and she offered to show me the way in person even though it was raining. On the way she mentioned that at least this wasn’t Bwaise because when it rains there our shoes would be covered with sewage if we walked around in the rain.
I don’t think Moreen realized this would be a conversation starter. Covered in sewage, why? I asked. When the rains come, residents will open up their toilets and let the rains take the sewage down the gutter. Perfect! Moreen’s mother lives in Bwaise and about a week after our first meeting, we went to Bwaise for a visit. I told my roommate, Mattias, of my intentions for that Sunday and was surprised to hear that he wanted to join on the trip to Bwaise. What a cool guy…
Moreen’s father had about 20 wives and about 50 children, according Moreen, before he died of complications of AIDS in his mid-30s. He left the family with nothing. Her mother remarried and now both Moreen’s mother and step-father have HIV.
Moreen took us to her mother’s house just off the main road in Bwaise. Bwaise is a slum. There are many slums around Kampala perhaps because there are many wetlands between the hills of the city. Wetlands are not the place to build a house, but of course people will crowd into a city and live where ever they can.
The latrine which Moreen’s mother and the rest of the family used was built in 2008 with funds from Uganda and Belgium, according the accompanying plaque. It was only a pit latrine but in fine condition and not too smelly. Moreen said a cesspool emptying truck would use a long hose to suck out the sewage as this latrine was about 35 feet from the nearest access point.
The second latrine we visited was in much worse condition. This one was even further from the road. Moreen explained. When the rains come, people will pull out a plug out of the side of their latrines and let the rain wash the sewage down the gutters. People do not have enough money to pay for a cesspool emptier to haul away the waste. This was what I was here to see. Even if the family could pay for a cesspool emptier, the slums, by definition, are unplanned and cesspool emptiers would not be able to access many of the latrines, so buried were they in the slums.
Emptying sludge into a gutter during a rainstorm represents a huge sanitation issue. Sewage can get into drinking water, onto food, into houses and on people’s hands. People could empty their latrines into the gutter because all latrines are built above ground in Bwaise. Digging pit latrines is impossible any hole dug into the marshy land of Bwaise will soon fill with water.
And then we found what we were looking for. A plug in the side of a latrine. People pull the plug out of the side of the above ground latrine to let the sewage discharge to the alleys between houses. I wished I had a chance to catch someone in the act of emptying their latrine. I wanted video footage. But people always did that discreetly and even then they would only do that in a rain storm. With the rainy season coming to a close, I knew that I would just have to imagine.
Moreen guided us towards the highway, the lowest lying region of the slum. Many homes had sand bags around the entrance. Through Moreen’s expert translation she told me that this was done to prevent water coming into the house. The residents said the floods came higher than in the past now that the highway had been constructed. I realized that the highway was built over the lowest lying regions where water used to drain from the slums and now water was pushed into the slums.
We talked to several families in the low lying area. They all would seek refuge in a nearby church when their houses flooded. The green line on the wall is the level the water will reach in a flood. Some landlords still collected 50,000 USH per month. Others had given up.
We were visiting a latrine when it started to drizzle, note Moreen’s umbrella. Also note that Moreen was walking around the slum in high-heeled converses with pointy toes.
We ducked into a house to shield ourselves from the rain. Below if a photo from the house where we took refuge.
After about 15 minutes of pounding rain I ducked outside. I was surprised to see this>
If this is what 15 minutes of rain could do, I would be afraid to see what a rainy season could do. Moreen fortunately had the common sense to think about escape. If we stayed in this house, the water would only keep rising and we might become trapped in the house.
The family owned two pairs of boots and the son guided us to higher ground, one at a time, before bringing the boots back for the next one of us to use. The water nearly reached to the top of boots. I knew what was in this water. I could even catch whiffs of it sometimes. This was just what we had come to see.
From higher ground I saw that the main gutter was actually dumping water into Bwaise, rather than removing the storm water. The gutter runs parallel to the highway and you can see from the above photo that water from the gutter is flowing to the right, into Bwaise. We were the only people wading through the water in boots.
Back at the main road in Bwaise I was surprised to see the water about 1.5 feet deep. To go from one side to the other some were wading.
Stores were flooded. And this was after only 15 minutes of rain, I had to keep reminding myself. How do people live with this? Was this really better than the quality of life they had previously? People really must dread rain here.
I saw a suspicious looking black bag on the ground and my suspicions were confirmed when a boy stomped on it, releasing human feces with a pop. It is common for people without a toilet to use a plastic bag and then toss it down the alley. These are know as “flying toilets.” I guessed that stomping bags full of feces provided some enjoyment for the boy and I could only imagine that there thousands of similar bags floating around Bwaise at that moment, waiting to be stepped on, releasing pathogens into the flood waters.
We found that the alleys back in the slum were also flooded. The family here had built a wall separating themselves from the neighbors downstream. The father who was bailing out the alley explained that the downstream neighbors would empty their latrine into the alley and the sewage would flow into his alley (and house). He built a wall separating the houses but this meant that all of the water pouring off his roof would land in the alley and have nowhere to go as the downstream flow was blocked. He now needed to bail the water out of his alley.
Moreen’s alley also had some flooding, though not as bad.
Moreen’s mother invited Mattias and I for lunch, where I ate my first and second grasshopper of my life. Basically, her family proudly offered us the grasshopper delicacy to honored guests. How could I turn her down without offending? They basically tasted like the corn oil they were fried in. We also had the standard Ugandan meal. Mattias and I recounted our story. Only one hour before we stuck in the flooding slum home. And now we were eating lunch. It was surreal.
This trip exceeded my expectations. And proved to me once again that talking to random people on the bus can lead in all kinds of unexpected directions. The most important lesson I have learned on this trip is to take risks. Talk to people on the street and people in buses. What is the worst that can happen? A random Ugandan will think I am strange for starting a conversation with them. If I didn’t take risks I would only do the expected and I would only reinforce what I already knew, but through a short conversation with a stranger, I ended up trapped in a flooding slum, which was exactly what I wanted.
See Mattias blog of our adventure here.