I was surprised to see my neighbour when she arrived at my house. We had barely spoken to each other and I was eager to know what had finally sent her across the road to my door.
“Hi, you are Fezile, right?” she smiled and reached out for a handshake.
“Yes, and you are?” I responded with a vague smile.
She frowned, apparently a bit put out that I did not know her name. “Busephi Zondo, your neighbour.”
“It's nice to finally meet you and know your name. Do you want to come inside?”
She looked a bit uncertain – this was not the most friendly neighbourhood, after all. “No, thank you. I actually came to ask if you have water. My taps were dry when I woke up this morning and I want to be sure it’s only me who has this problem before I call the plumber.”
“Oh, dear. I'll go and check, but I'm sure I have water. We’ve never had water problems in this neighbourhood before.”
I went to the bathroom, turned the tap on and to my relief water came out.
“I have water in my house so I suggest you go ahead and call the plumber. You can come with a bucket to collect some water here if you want.”
She smiled and thanked me. “I'm sure the plumber will sort this out before the end of the day.”
I continued with my morning chores and after a mouth-watering breakfast, I was looking forward to a nice warm bath. I turned on both the hot and cold taps, but nothing came out.
I decided I’d better inform Busephi and when I opened the door, I saw her standing outside my gate with a bucket.
“Hello, again, I wanted to ask if your offer still stands. It seems the plumber can’t fix my problem.”
“Well, I'm sorry to say we are in the same boat – I’ve just discovered I don’t have any water either.”
“But you had it this morning.”
“I guess it was the last bit of water in the pipes – and I wasted it. I don't usually drink water, but for some reason my throat has gone dry.”
“Well, it’s true that we only notice the importance of something when it’s gone,” my neighbour replied. And we both agreed on that.
Just then the phone rang. It was my mother telling me that her taps had run dry as well. I told her I was with my neighbour and we were trying to figure out a solution.
As we spoke, I watched another neighbour, Mr Mbalula, through the window. He was pushing a wheelbarrow with three 20-litre buckets down the street.
“Mom, I’ll call you back.” I hung up and rushed outside to ask the old man where he was going.
“To get some water,” he replied confidently.
“Can I come with you? I don't have a single drop in my house.”
“Me too,” Busephi said. “I promise I won't tell anyone else.”
The old man laughed. “It's not a secret place. Anyone can come. I’ve been using this water for many years, long before this neighbourhood had taps.”
And so the three of us walked. And walked and walked. My throat was getting more and more dry with each step. “The moment I reach that water, I will drink like a camel,” I said. “How far is the tap, Mr Mbalula?”
He laughed. “Who said anything about a tap?”
“I thought we were going to fetch some water,” Busephi said.
“Yes, but not from a tap,” the old man responded.
“Oh, so there’s a tank somewhere?” I asked.
“Wrong again. We will collect it from the river.”
“The river!” Busephi and I gasped in unison.
The river looked like it hadn’t been touched for years. The banks were overgrown and aquatic creatures were swimming around undisturbed.
“I hate to say this, but this water is no good for drinking or any human use,” Busephi said.
“This water is perfect,” the old man responded, as he climbed down the bank with his bucket. “Can you see how healthy the tiny fish are? If this water was poisonous, all these animals would be dead.”
“I think we should go back, Busephi,” I said. “Maybe we’ll find the water has come back when we get home.”
“Good luck with that,” the old man smiled knowingly. “If you find the pipes are still empty, at least you’ll know your way back to the river.”
The next day, there was still no water and people were starting to complain. A meeting was set up by the community leaders
“Water is everyone's basic need,” an angry neighbour called out. “This is the second day and we still don't have water, even though we pay for it every month.”
Everyone was present, except Mr Mbalula, who was outside happily watering his plants.
“Haibo! Why is the old man not worried about this matter? Is he the only one with water in this neighbourhood?” Mr Mkhize, who lived near the church, asked.
“No, he fetched water from the river yesterday,” I explained. “But that water is not good.”
“Water is water,” Mr Mkhize said. “At this point, we can't be picky. We don't even know when we will have our next rainfall. If there’s a river we can use to drink, cook, bath and do our laundry, I'm in.”
Everyone agreed, except Busephi and me.
And so, the next day it was only Busephi and I who had no water in our homes.
“Fezile, how are things at your house?” Busephi asked.
“Not so good without water,” I admitted. “I have defrosted some ice cubes and have a little water in a bottle in the fridge to cook today's lunch. I don't know how I will survive if this problem continues tomorrow.”
“That’s a good idea, my friend. Let me check if I have any ice to defrost in my fridge too.”
I was surprised she’d called me her friend. This water problem had established a bond between the two of us.
There was still no water the following day, and I’d used up everything from the fridge. I had no choice but to go to Mr Mbalula and see how he was doing after using water from the river for three days.
“I'm as good as new,” he gloated. “Too bad for you! I can see you are as dry as the desert. Can I offer you something to drink?”
I tried to contain myself. “A glass of water would be lovely, thank you.”
“I thought so,” he laughed and handed me a glass of crystal-clear liquid that looked like it had come directly from the tap.
“Is it really from that river?”
“Yes, I just boiled it and now it’s clean and even tastier than the tap water.”
And it was.
I went straight over to Busephi’s house to convince her to come with me to the river. “The water is not as bad as we thought. I have to tell you, it's clean and very tasty.”
“You’re just saying that because you are thirsty. We both saw fish and frogs in there. I can't possibly swallow that water.”
I led her over to Mr Mbalula’s house, and she was also amazed by the quality of the water. Admitting defeat, we collected our buckets and made our way back to the river.
It was now day eight with no running water. The whole community was slogging back and forth to the river and a new community spirit had developed among the people.
The municipality was surprised there were no complaints or people refusing to pay their bills. They had apologised for the problem and recommended people bought drinking water from the shops until the truck arrived to fill the water tank. Even that unreasonable suggestion was met with silence from the community.
What the municipality didn’t realise was that everyone was actually enjoying cooking, drinking coffee, watering gardens and doing their laundry with the natural water from Mr Mbalula's river.
It took more than two weeks for the water supply to be up and running in every home. But the community carried on as usual. The only difference was that now everyone knew one another’s names and friendly greetings were freely offered and received on the streets.
Every time my new best friend, Busephi, visited my home, I’d ask, “How do you like your coffee? River or tap?” And we’d raise our cup to Mr Mbalula and laugh.