Africa: ‘We Fight With Each Other Over Water’: Rivers Run Dry in Mozambique

In the absence of basic sanitation, life in rural Mozambique during the dry season involves a relentless cycle of arduous journeys to collect water unfit for drinking. The struggle for survival, which affects young and old alike, puts those affected at risk of disease and leaves little time for anything else

Water is evaporating from the beautiful landscapes of Mozambique. There is too little to keep people alive, and the lack of it is forcing them from their homes, splitting up families and killing children. Photographer Mário Macilau travelled around his country, talking to people whose only supply of water is from filthy rivers that dry up quickly in the hotter months.

In northern Mozambique’s Niassa province, only 21% of people have access to safe sanitation and just 42% have a clean water supply. Only half the area’s boreholes and wells are operational, forcing women and children to spend a great deal of time walking to fetch water.

Eudicia lives in Muassi village. She and her friend Josefina miss school up to four times a week as they have to fetch water from the riverbed.

“Going to collect water is not fun. I’m not happy because it’s too far. I’m not laughing because if I’m just laughing I won’t reach home until night. There are snakes and dogs there,” Eudicia says.

“We go in groups, because we’re afraid to go alone. Carrying the water is too heavy; it is dirty and has a bad smell, like grass or old leaves … Even when we do have water to wash, the water is dirty, so if you wash you are not really clean. I feel shy when I am dirty or my clothes are not clean.

“I miss school every other day or so, to collect water. I don’t feel good because I am absent from school.”

In Mozambique, the statistics are stark: 14.8 million people have no clean water, and more than 21 million are without a safe place to go to the toilet. Women and children make long, exhausting journeys to collect dirty water for their families. A lack of private toilets in schools causes many girls to leave when they start menstruating. Health centres are overcrowded and have inadequate sanitation. All of this leads to disease outbreaks: seven of every 100 children die before turning five.

“My favourite subject is Portuguese, and then social sciences. I want to be a teacher, because teachers can receive a good salary.

“I go to the river three times in a day,” she says. She fetches water for her family every other day. And because the river is far away, it means she has to miss school. “I’m not feeling happy, I don’t feel good about missing school.

“I have seven siblings, four girls and three boys. My best friend is Eudicia … We go to the river together. We have a game called namudóze. We make a circle on the ground and then throw a stone in the air. While the stone is in the air you have to move a small stone on the ground into the circle, then catch the stone that you threw on the way down. You keep going until you reach 12 stones in the circle.

“Sometimes Eudicia wins, sometimes I win.”

Josefina says she does not want to get married yet. “I want to wait. Next year I will go to grade six in Etatara. I’ll still live at home, but I’ll have to walk to school there. It’s far! My father supports me to go to school. He says, ‘Don’t be absent from school. You go to school to get a job.’”

Wissiquisse is a nahaco, a healer who cures using a combination of spiritual methods and herbal medicines, and is thought to possess magical powers.

Her husband died six years ago. “Ever since the day he passed away we have been suffering a lot … I have a lot of children.

“My job as a nahaco I only do when people come to my house and ask me. No one taught me. My late grandfather told me in a dream to come to the bush, so when I went there they were telling me to do this and that, and that’s how I learned.

“There is a spiritual connection to the river. When I go down to the river and ask the spirits for things, they give it to me. The same way that Christians go to church and pray to God to ask for things. We believe there are spirits in the river who will give us these things.

She says the most common thing women come to her about is when they are having trouble conceiving. “I give them some medicines, which they take home to help them.
The Nanjana river at this time of year is a stagnant, milky stream running off of the Muassi river

“Another problem is HIV. But I only give medicines for diseases like gonorrhoea or syphilis. To treat HIV properly, I can’t do it, so I tell them to go to the hospital.

“This kind of diarrhoea here – because of the water, I can’t treat it … When someone has a problem with their stomach from the water, they go to the hospital.
School children, aged 8 and 9, wash in a river in Nampula province

“The water situation here is bad. Even at the river we are fighting with each other to get water. Someone can go and take water and another one can come back without any. They are fighting because everyone wants to be the first to take water, so they come and say I should take it first, and then someone else comes and says they should take it first, and they start fighting.

“Because of this water problem I am suffering a lot. See all these children here – there is only that one small hole for water, for everyone to drink and to bathe. So it’s a big problem for us, and that’s why people fight.

“When you bring water here, things will change. It will be good, many people will not suffer because of sickness any more.”

“I live here in M’mele, in my grandfather’s house. My grandmother and my younger brother also live there, but he’s sick. I used to go to school but now I don’t go, I just decided myself not to go any more, mainly because of walking. I couldn’t always manage to walk there with the stick, because my leg was always hurting.

“When I was a small baby, we were running away from the war and someone shot at my leg, that’s why that leg is gone now. I was with my mother when we were running, I was in her arms. My mother died. Then later, in a following year, my father also died from diarrhoea.

“I am not thinking about them that much, only my mother because I miss her. For now I mostly don’t think anything.

“The problems here are getting water and food. It’s difficult to get water from the river, even for my grandmother it’s very difficult. She has a problem with her fingers. I can’t manage to go to the river to get water myself because of my leg. In this village there’s a big problem with water. We only get water from the river, and it’s far. It’s not clean water, it’s not good.

“I’m afraid … that water killed my father, so I’m scared to drink it, but I have to.

“I go to the toilet in the bush. It’s not that far. Its not a big problem. Sometimes I get shit on myself because of the way I have to squat on my foot. And sometimes I am not happy about it because other people have two legs and I only have one, so it’s easier for them. Sometimes I am sad. I would be happy if you built a nice toilet here.

“I get sick maybe once or twice a month. I don’t always go to the hospital, because there is no one to carry me there. If someone had a bicycle they could carry me, but no one around here has a bicycle.”

“Rogério has lived here for nine years. My daughter Delphinia was coming here in a car with him when they were attacked by bandits. They just started shooting, and the bullets went through my daughter and into his leg. My daughter died there, and they took Rogério to the hospital. Those bandits stole everybody’s things from the car, and then they burned it. The burnt-out car is still there, outside of Cuamba in a place called Patricio.

“To get water you have to go down to the river, where you just wait and wait, and then you have to carry it back. I am the one who has to get water. I go when the sun goes down only, because of the heat. Because of my legs I cannot go there very fast.”

Her surviving daughter, Arminda, comes by to help when she can. “Arminda is the one who carries Rogério to the hospital and back, brings food and does some cooking. She comes once a week.

“My husband can only sit and is thinking and thinking – his mind is not right because of thinking too much, trying to remember how to get back to the farm, how to do the work again. But he can’t remember how to do it. He fell down here in the house and hit his head, and that is when his problems started. That was about two years ago.”

Maria Nimolia is in her 80s. “Water has affected me too much,” she says. “Even when I ask children to collect water for me they just refuse, so that’s why I’m here today by myself. This water doesn’t really make me sick. I know that other people have problems with sickness from this water, but I seem to be OK.

“I can’t do any farming work any more, but I still go to the fields to keep some people company. Usually I just sit, nothing else. I clean and tidy my house.

“I don’t know how old I am, but I’ve lived here all my life. No one told me when I was born – I was a baby so I can’t remember. I live with my husband, Simon Jorge. I don’t know how old he is either. My son also lives with us, I think he’s about 30. I have seven children all together, but they live with their own families now.”

Her son-in-law José Witiness explains why she doesn’t know how old she is: “When the Portuguese colonised us here, they only accepted people who were rich to go to school. That is why older people here can’t read or write – they don’t know their ages or what year it is, and they can’t speak Portuguese. Their births were not necessarily registered, so sometimes they don’t even have an identity card. They were just living here in the bush and no one cared about them.”

“She has lost family, but she just can’t explain it.

“I was sick with cholera, and I had to go to the hospital to be treated. It happened because we didn’t have a clean place. The water here was so bad because the environment was dirty. We didn’t have any sanitation and the rain washed the faeces into the river.”

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