Culture | $1.50 a day

When the cost of a water bottle outweighs the cost of a life

It was earlier this year, in July.  I carried a bottle of water by my side as I walked towards Westgate Mall, a plush shopping center in Westlands – an affluent neighbourhood of Nairobi, Kenya.  The bottle was one-quarter full, or three-quarters empty, depending on how you look at it.

Now, before I proceed with the recounting of my experiences on this day, I’m going to pause for a moment and defend my possession of bottled water. While I agree with most arguments against bottled water, I would posit that one is allowed to eschew the greener tap water alternative if the said tap water contains a smorgasbord of occasionally fatal waterborne viruses, bacteria, parasites, and infections (the tap water where I live in rural Kenya most probably holds several of these).

That being said, most people reading this article will live in or come from a Western country.  Your tap water is predominantly fine.  Completely drinkable.  Thus, whereas I can be forgiven for drinking bottled water (I could die if I drink tap water), you, reader of the West, cannot.  This may seem to you like a double standard – c’est la vie.

If this is not convincing enough, consider the liquidity of your bank account. A New York Times article reported that if the average New Yorker got their recommended eight daily glasses of water from the tap it would cost them about $0.00135 per day (or approximately 49 cents per year).  Alternatively, if they got their 8 glasses from drinking bottled water it would cost about 2,900 times more (around $1,400 a year).  Nonetheless, despite this exponentially higher cost, bottled water consumption is growing rapidly – faster than all other beverage categories except sports drinks.

What’s more: as of 2008, the World Bank set its poverty line at $1.25 (US) per day, where “poverty” is defined as “not having enough income to meet the most basic human needs….” At that time, 1.4 billion people fell below this line.  Conversely, the average bottle of water costs about $1.50.

I would ask you, dear reader, to keep this fact in mind while I resume sharing the events of that day in July.

As I said, I was walking to Westgate Mall with a bottle of water…

Many expats and wazungu (meaning “white people” in Swahili; singular: mzungu) working in and around Nairobi frequent Westgate Mall to escape, for a moment, back to their (mostly) Western places of origin.  Westgate’s fine trappings include resplendent marble architecture (or some other polished stone); escalators and a three-story fountain somewhat superfluous for a country plagued by drought; ornate golden balustrades and a glorious air conditioning system; a food court and movie theatre; and, most importantly, other wazungu. These factors all combine to make Westgate’s upscale patrons feel “okay” about indulging their more decadent urges for a variety of utterly unnecessary creature comforts.  This was my destination and my plan: self-indulgence.  After all, having lived in rural Kenya since May of this year, I don’t feel ashamed to say that everyone needs to “escape” once in a while.

However, my plan was interrupted.  My escape foiled.

As I walked towards Westgate, alongside the bumper-to-bumper traffic that afflicted Nairobi’s seemingly perma-clogged streets, I saw a girl.  The girl was Kenyan – black.  She was lying on the ground, prostrate; her torso on the sidewalk and her legs dangling off the curb and onto the busy street.  She was young – late teens or early twenties – and was wearing dirty corduroy pants with a correspondingly dirty red fleece.  Neither were severely tattered, just dirty.  She wasn’t moving.

I must add that this didn’t instantly strike me as unusual.  At first, I just thought she was drunk.  Imbibing is a favourite pastime of many people over here (like I said, everyone needs to escape).  But then I realized that it was around 11 o’clock in the morning; that we were in the middle of upper-class Westlands, a place not particularly known for being home to poverty; and that she was a girl (female alcohol consumption is stigmatized in many places in Kenya).  These facts made the situation a little more unusual, but, still, I was used to seeing such sordid scenes. I almost kept walking.

I then realized that I had some water left in my bottle, so I stopped, unscrewed the cap, and stooped.  Knees bent and water bottle held out towards her, I asked if she wanted a drink.  Remaining face down, she didn’t respond.  I poked her gently.  No response.  I put the water bottle on the ground so I had two hands free and I shook her, all the while my voice growing louder with variations of “Hello… Are you okay?”  Still no response.  Something clearly wasn’t right.  I turned her over.  She now lay supine.  This was the first time I glimpsed her face.

She stirred.

Her lids opened, yet her eyes, now visible, remained eerily vacant; they were wide, but unaware and terrified.  After a few moments, it seemed to me as though she registered the water bottle’s presence.  Her eyes grew wider.  I lifted her head up and offered her the bottle.  She haphazardly brought it to her mouth.  Some of the liquid went in, but much spilled out down her jaw line and under her chin.  I started to put her head back down on the sidewalk, and, as her head descended, her lids began to close. Before her lids were able to fully close, her pupils rolled up and I saw only the eyeballs’ white under belly. She needed help.

The only thing I could think of doing was to bring her to a nearby building to lie down while I called a taxi to transport her to the hospital.  I tried to pick her up, but she seemed to have become unresponsive again.  Her body was limp. Her muscles were asleep.  And this made her surprisingly heavy.  I needed help.

During all this time nobody had walked passed us, but, as I looked for a co-bearer, a rather stout Kenyan woman in her early thirties strolled by.  I asked if she could help me carry the unconscious girl to a nearby building.  The stout woman, who introduced herself as Ruth, said she worked just over there, pointing down the road about three or four hundred metres, and told me that we could take her there.  It didn’t seem that far.

If you’ve ever tried carrying a person completely bereft of all muscular functioning, you’ll know that even ostensibly short distances can be transmogrified into onerous marathons.  As Ruth and I struggled to carry this vapid human being, who possessed unexpected density, we made what is referred to in the West as “small talk.”  Between heavy breathing and facial grimaces, Ruth told me she worked as a beautician.  I found this rather fitting, as she was currently engaged in the beautifying task of ridding a vagabond from this otherwise hoity-toity neighbourhood.  In effect, giving this gentrified Westlands street a sort of welcome cleanse: expelling a tiny blemish out of its otherwise unblemished façade.

As Ruth and I struggled to hold the unconscious girl up – each of her arms around one of our shoulders – I looked around at the traffic-jammed street we were walking parallel to.  I wondered, with cars moving so slowly and Ruth and I labouring so clearly and the unconscious girl hanging so gravely, why nobody pulled over, opened their door, and offered to drive us to a nearby hospital (which I later learned was only a few blocks away).  As I peered into the car windows, I saw both black and white faces gawking from their crawling vehicles.  The difference was that, as I made eye contact with the gawkers, the black faces continued to gawk, but the white faces quickly broke the eye contact and looked in another direction – any other direction.  This, to me, was an admission of guilt – palpable shame.

And why shouldn’t it be?  These people, no doubt people of means, had all driven past the unconscious girl on the road side, as if she were a piece of detritus.  They willfully turned their cheek the other way and, in so doing, blatantly flouted any sanctity or dignity that her life, a human life, should rightfully hold.  They went passed her as she lay dying.  And I had almost done the same.

With the girl draped on our shoulders, Ruth and I made our way slowly to Ruth’s work place. Shortly before reaching this destination, the building’s security guard saw us and approached.  I thought he was going to tell us that we’d have to bring the girl someplace else, that the girl’s manifestly unhygienic appearance is a security risk to the people of the building that he is tasked with protecting.  But, instead, the security guard asked if the girl draped on our shoulders was the same girl lying just up the street.  I replied in the affirmative.  He said, “Yes, I saw her when I came to work.”  I inquired what the time was when he came to work.  He said, “Around 5:00 a.m.”  It was now past 11:00 a.m.  She had been lying, unconscious or semi-conscious, on the curb for over six hours; all the while cars were inching past her, minute by minute, hour by painful hour.

Finally, a woman pulled her car over.  It was a glitteringly clean, black SUV.  A Toyota.  The woman in the driver’s seat got out and opened the car door that gave access to the back seat.  She was an older woman – late fifties – with designer glasses and deep wrinkles under her eyes.  She wore a pink blazer and sleek black pants pleats still intact.  She introduced herself as Rahab.

Rahab, Ruth, and I together lifted the unmoving mass into the back seat.  We all got into the SUV and Rahab drove off, headed towards the Westlands clinic.

Inside the SUV, I again, quite strangely given the circumstances, found myself involved in “small talk.”  Rahab informed me that she was a pastor and that she’s been born again.  She asked me if I’ve been saved (I presume she meant by Jesus Christ).  Knowing religion to be a hot topic in Kenya, and currently harbouring some ill-will towards organized religion myself, given that the Catholic Church’s policy on condom use is arguably responsible for millions of people contracting HIV/AIDS (among many other grievances), I answered Rahab’s question very diplomatically.  That is to say, I didn’t directly answer.  It was all very Romney-esque.

Rahab then asked Ruth if she’s been saved.  Ruth, quite bluntly, said, “No.”  I found the difference between her terse candor and my long-winded fluff rather amusing.  Rahab seemed to be unphased by either of our answers.  She simply responded, with a smirk, “Well, I will be preaching then.”  It wasn’t pushy or judgmental – just caring and genuine, almost maternal.

I then realized the irony in their respective professions.  A beautician could be said to be the antithesis of a pastor.  One seeking outer aesthetic splendor, the other seeking and propagating the way to inner salvation.  One’s goal is fleeting attraction and the other’s is eternal deliverance.  One’s object the skin, the other’s the soul.  And yet here they both were, together, bringing a girl in dire condition to receive much-needed care.

We arrived at the clinic, and brought the girl’s still-limp frame inside.  After some time a doctor came.  We sat in the waiting room.  After some more time, the doctor returned and informed us that the girl’s blood sugar was dangerously low, most likely from not eating anything for an extended period of time.  The doctor administered glucose.  After a short duration we were told that we could go see the girl.

Rahab, Ruth, and I entered her room.  She was lying upright in her hospital bed, back against the wall.  She was conscious.  Together, we smiled.  She didn’t speak English.  Thus, through Rahab and Ruth, I learned that her name was Stella.  She had just recently moved to Nairobi from a town called Kakamega in the west of Kenya.  She lives in a slum that neighbours Westlands, called Kangemi.

Now, Rahab asks her how she ended up on the side of the road.  Stella tells us that the previous evening it got dark before she could return home.  And, because she is new to Nairobi, she still has troubles finding her way around.  Then, in the darkness and confusion, she was accosted by some thieves who stole her cell phone.  She was stranded and couldn’t call home for help.

Stella is a slumgirl.  One of the 1.4 billion people who live at or below the poverty line.  She struggles to survive every day with less money than you pay for an unnecessary bottle of water.

Rahab assures Stella that everything is okay now, and then tells us to all join hands, and Rahab leads us in prayer.  Again, Rahab is not pushy, she has no affectations or ulterior motive.  She is simply compassionate; righteous without being self-righteous.  Her prayer is probably one of the most affecting moments I’ve ever experienced.  I open my eyes in the middle of the prayer to observe the three women around me as Rahab continues to speak.  The pastor, the beautician, and the slumgirl all have their heads bowed; all eyes strain, almost wincing; this betrays powerful emotions festering under their closed, worshipping lids.  The moment hits me, and tears begin to fill my eyes.  The prayer ends and everybody says, “Amen.” Except me, I was too busy quickly trying to wipe my tears away before the others opened their eyes.  But they saw.  Again, no judgment.  Rahab told me, bluntly, “Say Amen.”  I obliged, still wiping my eyes.  We all chuckled.

After this is all over and we say our goodbyes and farewells to Stella, Rahab drops me off at Westgate Mall.  After I hug her, she departs and I have finally arrived at my original destination.  I walk inside the ostentatious edifice of Westgate, and I feel uneasy. I grab a cart and enter the Kenyan retailer known as Nakumatt (redolent of a WalMart or a Costco).  Many wazungu push their carts mindlessly down the countless aisles of countless products  –starring at the shelves as if these shelves are about to divulge some life-changing secret.  These people are as unconscious of their surroundings as Stella was when I first came across her.  Westgate, this seat of affluence and luxury, a mere two blocks away from where she lay on the wayside, unconscious, for over six hours.  This, I realize, is a microcosm of our broader world.

And I wondered why I felt uneasy when I stepped into Westgate.  And you’ll now wonder why you feel uneasy about buying a bottle of water.  Rahab has God, Stella has life, and we…well, we have Westgate—and, of course, bottled water.”