Ponderings inspired at the bore hole

How fetching water becomes an exercise in magical realism

Posted: Friday, October 26, 2007

Measuring time in Wamfie with a watch is impossible. Instead, one listens for the tell-tale sounds around which the rhythm of a day is ordered.

Systematic sweeping of brooms against earthen floors is synonymous with the sunrise. Sunrise gives way to early morning just as the first streams of water pulse from the bore hole, splashing into awaiting pails.

Shortly after, machetes begin to slash against stubborn weeds, indication that the day's hard labor has commenced. (And I can testify, it is indeed hard labor.) Such sounds continue until dusk when a steady pounding (transforming yam, plantain, and cassava into the evening's fu-fu) drowns out other activities and signals the day's close.

It's intriguing to me how much we take these sounds for granted, assuming they will remain as consistent as our own heartbeats. But what does it mean if these sounds stop? What happens when, one morning, a stream of water does not patter against waiting tin?

I pondered this thought waiting, bucket in hand, for water which, this morning, did not come as expected.

As I conversed with the disturbed crowd, I soon heard three vastly different answers to why the water was delayed, revealing three vastly different ways of thinking.

Grappling with these answers, and catching glimpses of the field of thought behind them is, to an outsider, confusing and frustrating. But if one seeks to truly understand life in Ghana, or at least life in Wamfie, it is essential to examine these different answers in turn, and delve into the resulting worlds of philosophy they inspire.

In the first (most widespread) philosophy, one is not given an answer to a question such as, "Why isn't the water running today?" Instead one is told, "God-willing the water will come very soon." This can be frustrating when one wants to hear something specific. Besides, in my experience, "very-soon" can mean anywhere from five minutes to five years. But to rest comfortably within this philosophy it is best not to get too specific.

Trust is essential. When that trust begins to crumble, when somebody asks why things are the way they are, it might be that the entire world begins to fall apart. Somebody adventurous might tag on a simple explanation to their reassuring platitude.

"Because the rains have delayed, the water is slow this morning. But I am very sure it will come soon."

Such surmising can be dangerous without the reassuring platitude; it might lead to unanswerable questions, questions that take us into a second philosophy - one of abject realism.

If the above philosophy seems to you one of delusion, then surely this second philosophy we are about to enter is one of disillusionment. One quickly remembers why it was avoided in the first place.

"The water in the bore hole is not flowing because the level of the water table is so low. It's low because each year we draw more water then we get in replenishing rainfall. Over the last few years the rains have been diminishing, causing a much more rapid drop in our overall water levels. Soon there won't be any water at all.

"Building a new bore hole might push off the problem a few more years, but building a new bore hole would require financial contributions. Last year, we all gave money to bring in electricity, do you see any lights? But you do see the assemblywoman's new dress?

"Besides, most households are 49 months behind on their house repayments, which reminds me, when are we beginning the next round of evictions?"

I think we get the general tone of this philosophy and why one wants to ignore it.

So naturally, under such a restrictive reality, one is easily captivated by still a third way of thinking. A philosophy embodied heavily by elements of magical realism.

The water has not come because, "That man up the road, who we all know practices juju, he put a curse on the bore hole. We are just waiting for him to remove the curse and then the water will come." How one begins to navigate through such an illusive world is an enigma to me.

But such a world is readily accessed by say, my sister, Rita. When she saw a ghost last Saturday, she wasn't rattled in the least. Instead, she went right to the obituaries to try and figure out who it might be and what it might want. Turns out it wanted Rita to leave a bowl of groundnut soup by the cassava field.

I might not understand it, but I am increasingly drawn to this mode of thinking. Intrigued by a way of life where the incalculable and often marvelous don't just happen, but are expected to happen.

Who wants to believe in a reality that would take the lives of children using such cruelties as starvation? It's far better to believe children die when the trees planted at their births are not tended with enough attention.

These have been heavy ponderings. It's getting late. Cooking fires are beginning to glow through the enveloping darkness and all around me I hear the low laughing of families as they begin pounding the evening's fu-fu. The rhythm is promising, as comforting as it is steady. Listening to it I begin to listen to own heart beating inside my chest. I marvel at its consistency as I feel myself very much alive, and I remember to be grateful.

• Sophia Polasky, of Juneau, is a Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana, West Africa. She can be reached at scpolasky@gmail.com.

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