A Letter to the Woman Water Bearer

Originally published by Islamic Relief USA

I have never met you. I do not even have a name to attach to your imaginary face. All I can picture is two hips swaying back and forth above bare feet, a bright but frayed cloth tied around your scalp in a knot behind your ears, calloused hands balancing the tightly-woven basket that holds your day’s responsibility.

My sister talks about you all the time. She tells me there are people who have to walk days to find clean water to drink and wash with. She says there are one in seven people who live this way, spending all their time walking with buckets over dry land. Is it any wonder women should be charged with this mission? Your body gives life, and continues to sustain it by fetching water for the empty mouths waiting for you at home. When it takes days to reach the local river or stream or puddle, there’s hardly time for anything else. This is your career, how you make ends meet and put food on the table.

My sister says all this as her organisation’s video of freshly-dug wells and artful streams pouring out of pitchers plays behind her, drilling the mantra of “every drop counts” into the audience’s brains. She’ll say it again and again, willing that image of the swaying hips and the basket-head into their hearts and pockets, willing vital donations.

A local woman with a water carrying contraption waits patiently. Niger

Carrying water in Niger

I am glad she wills it. The world needs people who make careers out of bringing you water so that you can find another way to spend your time. So that you may live your life instead of always maintaining it. People like my sister spend years trying to change the world, believing in its capacity for improvement and basic decency. People like me spend minutes contemplating its horrors, jotting down ideas for the best poem they would make, and promptly returning to their microwave dinners and sitcoms. She sees things as fluid, but I wonder if everything is ice.

I wish this was different, that there were less poets to view the rain as something that glistens to the same tune as our emotions and more humans to see it as a gift. I wish I could bring you water myself, flying with it in opaque plastic tubs like the pilgrims do from Mecca. They check in gallons of Zamzam, God-given water from the heart of the Islamic land, and hoist it off luggage carousels as if it were just another overnighter from vacation.

They distribute the holy water in quart-sized doses, pouring it into miniature bottles to hand over with prayer beads, dates, and perhaps a rug if the recipient is lucky. This drinkable part of the pilgrim’s gift should be consumed reverently, sucking every drop as if it trickled straight from God’s hand. I wonder if the water in your basket tastes as sweet as this first-class, travelled water. I wonder if I’d recognize its sweetness without someone to tell me it should be there.

Thousands of years ago, the holy well’s appearance was a miracle, springing from the ground just when the baby Ismail needed it the most. To Meccans now, it is an everyday substance. Zamzam is as sacred as their morning bath.

A woman in Tunisia carefully pours water into drums for storage.

Measuring out water in Tunisia

Do you enjoy your morning treks? I imagine them taking place as the sun comes up, lighting the straw grass so regularly-pressed down by your soles that it is now its own path. Sometimes the neighbour’s wife accompanies you, inventing songs to move the arid specks of earth surrounding you, but mostly you travel alone. You are used to the sounds of clear life sloshing against its container, balanced on various limbs so expertly that nary a drop is lost on the way back home.

My longest walks have never exceeded an hour or two. The songs which keep me company must be prerecorded and playing in my ears through worm-like wires that call themselves headphones, allowing my brain and mouth time to complain at sore feet and thirst. My sister’s charity walks, raising money for water carriers like yourself, provide participants with packaged bottles of the filtered life source at each checkpoint. Maybe this is to prevent dehydration and lawsuits, or maybe it is to prove a point. We can’t last this long without a sip, so how are you supposed to?

I am sorry for my ignorance and lacklustre imagination. I don’t know if your scarves are brightly colored or checked like a zebra’s hide. I don’t know if you wear scarves at all. I don’t know how strong your arms must be to stay a water bearer. I don’t know if you weave baskets to get the job done or if your village has metal buckets. Do you even live in a village? Are you on the continent everyone assumes needs our help, or are you hidden in some other corner of the globe? On a patch that isn’t salty.

A Sudanese woman fills up a drum with water.

Pumping water in Sudan

I am sorry for the unoriginality of my privilege. I do not want to drone on about my lack of misfortune, dealing only with the occasional cold shower and wet socks from rainy days.

I am sorry I have the bratty habit of leaving the tap running while I brush my teeth simply because my hands like to thaw in the morning under a steaming stream.

I am sorry I rarely remember to curb this habit, occasionally turning the handle and slowing the stream only when ‘thank you for conserving water’ messages flash through my head, reprimands of the California ‘drought’. I wish I had more to speak of on the topic, but my stream of self-pitying words has run dry.

I hope to give you a name one day, and that my sister can stop delivering speeches and organising events to raise funds. I hope water-bearing does not have long to remain on the job market. I hope you feel rain, someday soon.



© Copyrights 2022 Islamic Relief SA. All rights reserved Charity Registration Number - 043-357-NPO