Otis Poisson, a student in Wesleyan and Columbia University’s joint Engineering Program, became a part of the Maji Safi Group (MSG) community when he volunteered in June and July of 2012. While in Shirati he helped develop and implement the MSG Bio-Sand Filter program. The filter was adapted from an MIT graduate student’s dissertation model so that it could be constructed from all locally available materials. Otis enjoyed getting to know the community and experiencing the local life. This is his account of a day (or a morning) in the life of a Tanzanian biking water-porter.
Getting on the bike, the buckets are empty but my heel clips them on the up-pedal as I begin to move. The steel bike is heavier than any bike I’ve ever ridden. It is clumsy and feels simultaneously sturdy and as though it could fall apart at any moment. Bombing downhill the bike clangs and the empty buckets rattle. The ride to the lake is easy, sitting upright and catching the lake’s breeze. I try to imagine what the return ride will be like with the buckets full of 100L of water.
I soon know that I can’t have imagined it. We turn off the road onto a meandering path through a busy lakeside village; it takes us to the lake. The village people laugh at my presence, on my borrowed bike with my five yellow jugs. The opening to the lake is beautiful, wide, and it hurts to think of how contaminated its water is.
We prop our bikes on kickstands by the sand and Mayango kicks off his rubber sandals. He unstraps the 10 buckets, 20L each, and quickly fills them two at a time while I shuttle jugs back and forth across the sand. Other biking men are there retrieving water and more arrive. I recognize their faces from running on the road – there must only be a select few who do this daily. With our 200L, Mayango straps the jugs back on – 100L now ready to pull down the bike’s rear. One jug is on either side of the wheel, two rest side by side on a rear bike-rack, and one jug lies sideways atop the last two, it’s upper edge about parallel with my shoulder blades while I’m seated.
We walk the bikes back through the lake village, gradually uphill, and I feel the water sloshing back and forth, my right shoulder supporting the side of the topmost jug and my right hand gripping the back of the rack just above the wheel. I steer and break when necessary with my left hand while my feet are off to my left rather than beneath me, fighting the weight of the water by pushing both sideways and forwards. I fear that I will tip the bike and spill all the water even though the jugs are capped.
The weight feels precarious. We make it through the village onto the main road and to a slight downhill. I’m not sure how to mount the bicycle and achieve an upright, riding position and then begin riding without letting the bike tip. I get on, keeping the bike as level as possible, and inch the bike forward, half sitting on the bike’s crossbar, waiting for the wheels to roll enough so that I may sit and think about pedaling. I feel the jugs already trying to find the ground. I think that this is almost like learning to ride a bike, or when you see someone learning to ride a bike, and that it should be easier once I’m moving – at least until I need to slow down and get off. I get up on the seat, my feet on the rickety pedals, and begin moving in a clumsy manner even after watching the watermen do so gracefully and with ease.
There is now neither an incline nor a decline but the ground is certainly not even. I notice it more now than ever. Any sideways lean or jostling starts the water moving side to side – 100L swaying in unison, pulling and pushing my rear wheel side to side. I can hear it and feel it and I must fight the back and forth weight to right my course, hitting and trying to avoid more holes in the process. I remember crashing when I was four years old. This takes so much focus so I focus and move straight, trying to restrict my motions so that there is no side-to-side sway in my body.
Focus focus focus and the biker in front of me answers his cell-phone while remaining effortlessly in the central, flatter part of the road. We get to a series of bridges – a bumpy uphill, a short bridge, and then a bumpy downhill before the next. The rider in front of me signals for me to slow down as we approach. I do so anticipating the dismount and wondering how exactly to now get off and keep the whole rig from tipping. I slow to a stop, take my feet off the pedals and reach for the ground while still remaining upright, then try to slowly loop my right leg up and over the crossbar to meet my other leg on the left side of the bike.
As I do so the bike starts to tip from the back. It is a slow tip but the falling weight of the water is too much to correct. The bike lands on the ground and three of the five jugs bounce off and down the bank of the road. I don’t lose water but all five accompanying riders stop and wait as I retrieve the three and Mayango helps me restring them. My bike is again upright and strapped. We are back on foot and have caused a bit of a traffic jam of bicycles, motorcycles, and one car at one end of the two sequential bridges. We push up and over each and soon come to the big hill, at the top of which I know is our destination.
We begin the climb – one that I’ve run many times by now and have decided is probably a third of a mile at a steep grade after a third at a low grade. My lower left back is full of tension and my right shoulder, pushing and holding the leaning jugs, is sore and tired. My head is bowed and the sun beats my neck, telling me to stop. I’m dripping with sweat and I glance around quickly to see that the watermen are hardly glistening. I think then that anticipation of the suffering is indeed worse than the suffering itself and I try to just do the job, climb the hill and push the rolling, sloshing water, and not worry about how much hill remains above me. We do make it to the top and turn off onto our road. We walk the short remainder of the trip and soon make it to the house.
We unload, 2000 shillings for each load ($1.30) and I say to Mayango, “one more” and we go. We stop at Mayango’s house, a small compound where there seem to live multiple watermen. He asks if I want water but I for some reason say no. I wait and he gets a quick drink. Standing there in the compound, another young and wiry man comes out and gives me an AHA! and asks how it is, the water biking. I say that it is difficult, tiring, and he laughs ruefully. He tells me simply, sternly and proudly: “It’s our life.”