Today’s post is a guest post written by Sarah Dobsevage, Institutional Development Manager of WaterAid America. The post is about her recent experience in Senegal when a water pipeline broke down causing severe water shortages throughout Dakar, the capital city of Senegal.
As a mom, as a professional and as someone who loves to dive deeply into new cultures and experiences through travel, I’ve had an admittedly good lot in life. I have two beautiful daughters, a tremendously fulfilling job at an international non-profit called WaterAid, and the opportunity to spend time overseas in support of WaterAid’s programs that are helping poor communities in 27 countries across the world get access to toilets and clean drinking water.
As a former Peace Corps volunteer and graduate of Columbia University’s School of International Affairs, I pride myself on being a seasoned traveller: Quick to adapt, and well-versed in the often difficult living conditions found in many developing countries. I have particularly vivid memories of my time living in Moldova while in the Peace Corps. At the time, water flowed through old Soviet-built water pipes just two times each week, making it our only chance to collect the water we needed for the next days in huge plastic containers.
Somehow, though, none of my academic or life experiences thus far had quite prepared me for the two weeks that I spent in Senegal recently, when a pipeline carrying water to Dakar from a water plant at Keur Momar Sarr, 155 miles to the northeast, broke down.
The malfunction not only caused a severe water shortage that led to a dramatic decline in hygiene and sanitation for everyone in the area, it also gave rise to serious concerns about a potential cholera outbreak. About 40 percent of the 3 million people in Dakar and its suburbs were cut off from water for a full three weeks, and I was in the thick of it.
Perhaps an ominous foreboding, I arrived in Dakar late on Friday the 13th, just after the pipeline had broken. In tow were my daughters, aged 1 and 4, my mother, approaching 70, and our Senegalese nanny who had travelled with us from New York. Reuters and numerous other media outlets reported on how the water shortages brought simmering frustrations to the fore, especially in poor neighborhoods. Protesters took to the streets that week, burning tires and demanding water. Some threw stones at security forces, who responded with tear gas.
I’ve seen it happen all over the world: when water isn’t running from the pipes, people often find themselves forced to resort to getting water from unmaintained wells or stagnant pools of water, increasing the risk of further disease outbreaks. That’s exactly what happened in Dakar that week—and it just felt wrong. It felt especially wrong considering that my kids and I literally flew into that deprivation and would just as quickly leave going back to the predictability of a dependable clean water supply that is interrupted only by regular maintenance and our superintendent’s advanced notice, “no water on such and such date, from 9-11a.m. for routine repairs.”
As a seasoned traveler to Africa, some might have questioned why I even bothered bringing the whole crew with me (on my own dime, of course). There was no question whether my youngest daughter would be coming along: I’m still nursing. My mother served as a Peace Corps volunteer herself in Senegal from 1966-69, and was returning to Senegal for the first time in 44 years. She spent the weeks leading up to our trip brushing up on her Wolof and digging through her memories, and somehow it felt like the perfect confluence of familial needs. I was working and mothering; my daughters would get a new life experience; my mother would return to her Peace Corps host country; and our nanny would get to see her own parents and siblings.
Our bumbling troop of four arrived in Dakar, where the process for retrieving our visas was long, the bugs fierce, and the humidity overwhelming. Add it all together—a seventeen hour flight with two little ones, a five hour time difference, 100 degree heat, nearly 100 percent humidity (bikram conditions, anyone?) and a pronounced fear or malarial mosquitos near my kids—and you’ve got a recipe for a mom functioning at minimal capacity.
It took some time for me to revert back to my Peace Corps mode. In Moldova, people often said “ligko privikat k luchemu”, “it’s easy to adapt to better ‘conditions’, implicitly alluding to how difficult it is to adapt to harder conditions. Let’s face it, though, the inconvenience of no running water is much more pronounced with kids than it was for me as a single woman living alone in Moldova.
Suddenly, the sing-song “Be sure to wash your hands!” took on new meaning. Not only am I a vocal proponent of hand washing (I credit my day job at WaterAid for that one), I am even more vociferous when traveling with my kids. I have a deep fear of diarrhea in children under the age of five, especially when they are my own. At work with WaterAid, I spend my days warning people of the dangers of unsafe water, poor hygiene and the lack of toilets—of the fact that 2,000 kids under the age of five die each and every day from preventable diarrheal disease.
But if you think it’s difficult washing a baby’s hands while holding her, try doing it while pouring water from a large, heavy container into a smaller cup, and then on to your baby’s hands… all while she’s trying to wiggle her way out of your grip. Suddenly, hand washing becomes a four-step process—before you even get to the soap. Outside the relatively cushy quartier where we were staying, news outlets were reporting that people were throwing their feces into the sea, due to the lack of water to flush the toilets. And if the seas are rough or the tide is high, that same water washes straight back into the wells that people use to get their drinking water. The concerns about a cholera outbreak were well warranted.
As exhausting and worrisome as it were, it was an incredible educational experience for all of us. After all, what better education for my born and bred-NYC girls than to experience a Griot playing the kora at dinner or the tent-like feeling of sleeping under a bed net; to hear French spoken by people other than myself and their father (not to mention Wolof), or to see their nanny at the top of our family hierarchy, navigating all of us through persistent Senegalese folds, haggling for a few coins in exchange for a service we never asked for and didn’t need. As I looked around with worry and renewed appreciation for the water and toilets that we all too often take for granted, my four year-old’s response to each new experience was simple and in the moment: “Why can’t we do this at home, mom?”
About the author
Sarah Dobsevage joined WaterAid America in 2007, where she currently serves as Program Development Manager. She started her career by hopping from teaching English in Moldova, to translating in Kazakhstan, studying Arabic in Yemen and researching water and sanitation needs in Kenya. Luckily for WaterAid, she stopped hopping on the latter. Sarah has an MA from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and a BA in history from Columbia College. She speaks Russian and French and is the proud mom of two beautiful girls, Meira and Talia.