Bathing with rainwater

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My personal Pavlovian conditioning, Nigerian style: my eyes lighting up (along with all electrical equipment) when I hear the hooray-NEPA-has-come siren blaring; my instantly clammy hands when I am behind the wheel and see a uniformed whatever by the side of the road prowling for victims to extort; me hastening outside at the first drops of rain to strategically place buckets underneath the drainpipes to catch the water. To be honest, the last example concerns a very recent form of conditioning. The area of Surulere where I live has always been blessed with running water from the Lagos Water Corporation, but since that water stopped flowing for months on end, I find myself harvesting rainwater, thus adding another Pavlovian reaction to my Nigerian everyday life.

This was not my initial response. My first reaction when the taps dried up was to call the Corporation. I knew the number; I had called them many times before. In front of my house there used to be a leaking water pipe, you see, and I considered it my civic duty to inform Lagos Water about this unnecessary wastage of an important resource. I made countless calls, sent e-mails and even went to their office next to Teslim Balogun Stadium to file a complaint. Every time they would promise me that someone was coming to fix it. No one ever did. Three years later it was fixed only because the neighbours, whose disconnected pipe it was, reconnected to the mains.

I once timed how long it took to fill a litre bottle with the water gushing out of that broken pipe day and night. Twenty seconds. And so each minute, three litres of water got spilled into the sewage. For three years, that is 1,576,800 minutes, in total 4,730,400 litres of water got wasted. According to UN standards, that could have served ten people with sufficient water for that entire period. And surely the broken pipe in front of my house is not the only one. I shudder when I think how many deprived children in Lagos could have led healthier lives just by fixing the damaged mains.

Thus I should have known better than to call Lagos Water when the water stopped running. But I couldn’t help myself. I called on day one. On day two. On day three. Evebathing5ry morning, for weeks on end, I spoke on the phone to customer service employees who, after a couple of days, started recognising my number and responded to my calls with ‘Good morning, Madam.’

My neighbours did not call. Nor did they go out on the streets with banners to demand running water. Some looked for an aboki pushing his wheelbarrow through the streets to fill their containers, while others had years ago decided not to depend on government service for their water and consequently had drilled boreholes in their compounds.
My Nigerian neighbours looked at me warily when informed I had called the Water Corporation. They were too polite to say it, but I heard them thinking: ‘Oyibo…’ What could one ever expect of such a phone call? None of these citizens thought of calling the parastatal to account; they all looked for their own private solution to the collective problem.

In a country where most politicians don’t do much more than share oil revenues, no one counts on government support. Every household forms its own government and provides itself with its own electricity, security, and education. That results in citizens who function differently from me, product of the Dutch welfare state. After four years of trying to integrate in Nigeria, I feel this is the most fundamental difference between me and my neighbours. The Pavlovian response of the average Lagosian when something goes wrong is to fix the problem for themselves without expecting any help from outside – least of all by the government.

My neighbours, of course, were right. Nothing came out of my dozens of phone calls. The customer service employees were cordial enough, but vague about the causes of the disruption and the expected restoration. I might as well have thrown away the money I wasted on credit calling them.
At some point, having bathed in rainwater for several weeks, I decided to take the matter to a professional level. I decided to write an article about the challenges of the Lagos Water Corporation. Most Nigerian colleagues I spoke to shrugged when I mentioned the trouble with the water: they had boreholes or wells and couldn’t understand why I didn’t.

When the Lagos Water spokesperson picked his phone, his response was: ‘How did you get my number?’ It was the first time in my twenty years as a journalist that I had heard an employee from the public affairs division of a public service – whose contacts should be in the public domain – utter these words. Apart from that, he refused to say anything on record.

I can’t blame him too much. He is not used to interaction with the public, simply because the public does not engage with the Corporation either. And herein lies the paradox of Nigeria’s failing public services. Because they are hardly held accountable, their service gets more and more sloppy, giving the citizens even less reason to count on them.

But lo and behold: the Lagos Water Corporation is coming to your doorstep this season! In early July this government body announced that it will be ‘visiting the Customers to verify their Water problems like Over Billing, No Billing, Double Billing, No Water, Water Leakages, Non Reflection of Payments, etc, in order to find lasting solution to the problems.’ And they’ll be starting with Surulere. Could this be the first step towards a lasting relationship between the water corporation and its customers? I am still waiting for the knock on my door.

In the meantime, I’ve started looking for a new place in Surulere. With a borehole.bathing4

Femke van Zeijl is a Dutch journalist and author living in Surulere. You can find her on Twitter @femkevanzeijl

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