A big, cold glass of water is one of life’s simple pleasures. When you’re thirsty, there’s nothing better. But what if, on the way to the tap or water dispenser, a lion leapt out at you? Or an elephant charged you? Or a 15-foot long crocodile with a big toothy grin was lurking in wait?
Such scenarios seem farfetched to us, but they’re a reality for millions of people in Africa. Water gathering is a dangerous yet essential activity in many countries.
In Zambia, lives are lost every day because lakes and rivers are infested with ferocious crocodiles. Rather than risk being ambushed in their daily quest for water, many women and children prefer to search for small streams and dig shallow holes to collect drinking water in plastic containers.
This method is uncertain at best; it might take 12 hours to collect 20 litres of water, and animals often contaminate the water by drinking and bathing while the container is filling.
On the plains of Kenya, the Maasai tribespeople don’t necessarily face crocodiles, but other dangers abound. In self-defense, tribes surround their villages with fences made of acacia wood and thorns. The sharp fences usually deter lions and other predators, although elephants and buffalo have been known to push right through them.
A single lion would probably steer clear of a settlement in any case, my driver Eric told me. “If a lion wanders into a village, three or four people can scare it off themselves just by yelling. Lions don’t like noise, and many have been conditioned to be afraid of the Maasai. The men don’t often kill the beasts, just wound them with spears and arrows to inflict pain and teach them to be afraid of people.”
However, the relative safety of the village is lost to many Maasai women and girls each day when they have to walk five to 10 km to fetch water for their families. Even if they manage to avoid predators along the way, the water they obtain is often contaminated with dirt and animal waste. Sparse as it is, the water must be used for drinking, cooking and watering herd animals.
I found it surprising that elephants can be more dangerous than lions. Elephants frequently do kill humans, and many Africans fear the huge creatures a great deal, as they are protected by governments and can’t be killed, even in self-defense.
“If a woman or child is standing between an elephant and water or food, the beast may try to catch her and stomp her,” Eric told me, adding elephants have even been known to bury bodies by breaking off tree branches and covering them up.
“The only thing you can do is report an elephant to the game wardens, who might show up a month later. If the elephant is still there, they would only fire guns into the air to try to scare it off.”
While the dangers of lions, elephants, buffalo, crocodiles and other wild animals are still a reality in many parts of Africa, some fortunate communities in Kenya and Zambia now have safe, clean, protected water, thanks to Operation Eyesight’s generous donors. As one of the Maasai told me, “Water means happiness, energy and safety to our people.” Learn more about our water projects.