Water, Water Everywhere: A Memory of Water in the Nairobi River Basin
It is 2011.
Yesterday, a young cattleman in a striped red shuka strode into the heart of Nairobi city with myriad scrawny but hopeful beasts, brown and white cattle crossing black-tarmacked roads, stopping crazed traffic and following lines that once upon a time led to pastures and secret watering holes. When he and his creatures got to a site that had been carried down in stories, had been mapped in the blood and memory, they discovered that the swamp had become a shopping mall, and the water source was now a parking lot and nearby tributaries were foaming cesspits.
Yesterday, a tall and slender man carrying a long stick and a knobkerrie—who had come from over 100 kilometers away—stared at a reeking stream. His road-weary cattle lowed and waited for the whistle that would invite them to drink water. They did not see the traveling herdsman lift his head to watch the sparse clouds floating across Enkare Nairopi, the place of cool, still waters.
Mists cling to far mountains with jagged edges like dragon teeth. Cumulus clouds approach—the scent of water—and then disperse, just like that, damning hope. The spread-out land is frayed with waiting for rain. Pale gold, short grass, stumps. Dust roams the land on parched winds.
Il Bissil, Kajiado, Kenya, is of one of the longest running cattle exchange markets on the continent. The rains—in Kenya, that is how they are known—the rains are late again. The rains have been noticeably dysfunctional in the last few years, showing up when they shouldn’t, dissipating in the middle of a storm cycle, disappearing altogether for months, sneaking in when least expected, and just after the hapless weatherman pronounces their advent, evaporating for good.
Lorries hauling spherical tanks filled with water from secret wells dart across town, peddling water in Mephistophelian deals. The dams are drying up. Electricity is a rare and rationed commodity that costs eight times what it ought to, and generators drone at every turn. The news carries tales of crop failure—battle losses—the cassava, the maize, the beans, the potatoes, tea. And those pictures, now clichés, begin to crawl across the world's screens—desiccated camel husks, skeletal souls, bellies distended, heads swollen, the keening mother.
Enkare Nairopi. Place of still waters. A swamp, stopping-off point to elsewhere, a watering hole before it became, by mistake, a capital city. Before the frenzy of tall steel buildings and eager aspirations, of political thugs and dealmakers, hot-air debaters and property developers who are committed to ceaseless industrialization, before all of this, four rivers spread themselves in the basin that became the city of Nairobi and sustained its existence. Four rivers provided fresh, clear water to all passersby. The four rivers were woven into the legends of far-away people—they guaranteed cool water when drought threatened landscapes. The rivers were a character profiled by the land’s original keepers—traveling trustees and their livestock. Stories of this place had been passed down in their narratives of life and journey.
Enkare Nairopi was not built to know of the absence of water. Yet something happened. A railway traversed the country. A collection point, this swamp gathered more and more people around it. A city was given life by a river. Its first residents were squeezed to its margins, and soon it was said, “Nairobi belongs to nobody.”
In a short time, as more people settled in Nairobi, it became necessary to grab hold of other catchments and dam them to water the greedy city that was asphyxiating the very rivers that had given it life.
* * *
It is 2011.
There are today, fewer "still points" of and for water in Nairobi. No guarantee of presence or freshness of water. No catchment sources are safe. The Thika Dam levels are critically low. There is nothing for Nairobi city to do now but wait and wait for rain.
Ngong Forest, Dagoretti Forests, Ondiri Swamp: these are the sources of the trickle that is the Nairobi River. Pick a source, any source. The Motoine-Ngong River. Visiting cranes on the bank. Cacophony of bird song. An insect whirrs incessantly. It still bears a resemblance to a biblical place of still waters where souls seek restoration. An arcane source in an old land. The water is a resonant, deep chant.
Away from the Motoine-Ngong, it will not take long for the glorious flow to become overwhelmed by plastic milk packets and supermarket bags. After the birdsong at the source, the sense of abandonment here is palpable. Darting dragonflies, the only other sign of life.
About 3 kilometers later, the river briefly recovers and is able to even accommodate playing small fish and tadpoles, verdant wild plants, weaver birds, and a gurgling sound that is how a river sings. Short-lived joy, because the waters have to make their way into what used to be the Kibra tropical forest, once so beautiful that new settlers mistook it for one of Eden’s gates. Only memory lingers. Everything has become a massive, haphazard, tin-roofed, rubbish-heaped human settlement, the subject of hyperbole and superlatives—the biggest slum in the world, home of the worst polluted stretch of river in the world, locale of the most non-governmental interventionists in the world. At this point, what had been the Nairobi River is a coagulated black mass emitting a vicious stench. Those who venture close to the river walk a little faster, look in every direction but at the seething. It is possible to imagine that the twinge felt within is unadulterated human shame.
The river then hobbles into what used to be an impressive dam—the Nairobi Dam—so notable that a famous yacht club was once situated on its banks. It is a humid plantation now. Water hyacinth, papyrus, cannabis sativa, assorted water reeds, and long-stranded boats. For the river, it is eastward and downhill from there: factory and farming effluent, untreated sewerage, agricultural projects, choking human settlement.
There have been some reasonably successful attempts by all manner of city stakeholders to declog and clear some tributaries of this river and do all that is possible to summon life back into Nairobi’s waters.
It flows on. When the river converges with other tributaries to become the great Athi River, a witness experiences a sense of relief, as if the gruesome travails of a creature of life imposed by those it has tried so hard to belong to, have now ended in a death surge which transforms it into a formidable, angry flow that is not so susceptible to human bullying as in Nairobi.
* * *
The next day.
Watching clouds, just like the slender traveling man with his cows. Clouds impale themselves on uneven mountain tips. These scatter with the orange-tinted mist.
Sitting on the ground in Il Bissil, Kajiado, is one of those ageless people with dark-gold skin tones and distant seeing eyes. An intricately lined face—a well-lived face—in which a million stories hide. He is also a cattleman. With a nod to the times in which he had found himself, years ago he acquired a title deed for the land his clan had held in trust for God. He now wants to sell portions of the ranch so that he can build a watering hole. A signal that a chapter of a certain way of life is approaching its end, a result of constant uncertainty about the continued presence of water on earth. Life in movement, life of movement interspersed with seasonal halts must change now that society builds fences around rivers, closes ancient lake access, and cover’s nature’s ponds with tarmac.
The old man’s livestock are not at home. Ten days ago they left with three of his sons. They crossed the border into Tanzania and are traveling further south to find proverbial greener pastures.
We are here to gauge the viability of an acre of land for purchase and ownership. After prerequisite welcomes and appropriate silences, we ask the first of human questions, the one that space explorers ask as they scout the universe for viable real estate:
Is there water?
Where is it?
How long has it been here?
The old cattleman pauses before pointing out mocking mists shrouding the uneven hills, and a hint of cumulus clouds that will soon fade into blue sky. A difficult question, he murmurs. There are so many changes to the sky, moon, elements, the movement of creatures, the flow of wind, the air, the light of stars, the greening of trees, the waters of the rivers, the reflection of sun. The questions would have been simpler to answer decades ago, he says. He speaks of the persistent appearance of the red star these days. He says, long ago, when the red star showed up, and it was not often, they understood the birth of rain over the land would be a difficult one.
Life speaks to life, he says in an aside.
There is water, he continues. A spring with a buried source. It emerges as a bubble of water close to the top of the highest hill. It transforms into a gush, becoming a clear stream, which vanishes before it reaches the bottom of the hill. In the 1940s a European sojourner—a priest, he suspects—connected a pipe at the waters midway point. The pipe still carries water to the base to this day. This water had never dried up. In that season of 2011, however, it had been reduced to a few large droplets spitting from the pipe. There was no gush, but still, there was water.
The cattleman shifts, a small frown deepening the lines of his face, reading the landscape.
Now the old man talks about small birds, annual migrants—swallows perhaps—which have appeared on that part of the landscape, regular visitors from far, far away. The parent birds appear first and distribute themselves in different trees, where they build their nests, he explains. Maybe a month or two later, little fledglings appear and make their own journey, finding their way to their parents.
The wonder of the journey is not the old man’s point. He is grasping at words to convey the obligation to life by life to keep the things of life in consistent flow. Life speaks to life, he repeats. He says that after the birds had settled into their landscape, followed by an array of insects—golden dragonflies, for example—heavy, dark clouds would loom immediately over the land. Thunder, lightning, and the short rains would water the earth.
The cattleman hesitates.
His tone softens. He says he thinks things changed as the generations changed. The old ways of reading the land have been replaced by book knowledge, the kind that made it all right for trees to be cut and wood burned and sold as charcoal, so that in less than ten years the land has became a wind-battered plain.
One day the traveling birds did not show up as they had done before. Soon, the habit of waiting for the birds also died away. The birds, he explains, like frogs that used to surface from beneath the dust, were known as the rain-bringers.
He says he hopes the books that children read will explain what should happen next. He has decided, though, not to wait. He shall dig a large and wide watering hole into his land. He will pray for rain to fill it up.
* * *
Later. Waiting for rain-converted Nairobi water to gush through a kitchen tap’s sputtering steel mouth. Outside, star-filled skies; a red planet is a far point in backlit darkness. Tomorrow, as today, will be a bright and sunny day. Few clouds, no rain.