JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN A few weeks ago I was late for work, so I only had time for an eight-minute shower—just long enough to wash my hair and soap up, no exfoliating or shaving. The average shower head in the United States uses two and a half gallons a minute. My eight-minute “quick” shower squandered about 20 gallons. Because my mind was on my upcoming trip to South Sudan, I was horrified when I stopped to fathom those numbers. The first time I had travelled to South Sudan, the trip leader had emailed us warning that we would have no access to fresh water for days at a time and when we did have a little water for bathing, it would amount to about eight cups in a wash basin behind an old acacia tree. Then the email outlined very specific directions on how to use those eight cups.
“Step One,” the email said, “put the shampoo on the top of your head with your hair dry and rub it around until it has evaporated.” The first time I had the chance to do this in the African bush was about four days into my trip. There were five of us in South Sudan to observe the drilling of a well for the non-profit Water for South Sudan. We had spent most of our time underneath a fig tree watching operations, talking to villagers, and sweating. I tried to wash up at the end of each day with wipes, but by the second night, I realized that was useless. Dust and sweat commingled on my skin within minutes of stepping outside my tent each morning. By the fourth night, one of the drilling crew had come back from a day trip to another village that had a well. He brought with him a fresh supply of water. I could finally take my eight cups and my shampoo out behind the fig tree.
Ironically, the daily recommended amount of water for consumption is also eight cups. However, that number rises after a workout or in very hot climates, like South Sudan where the average temperature is over 100 degrees. The children in our camp had confiscated our used bottles so they could fill them with parasite infested marsh water. By the end of the first day, there were a number of school aged children in our camp mimicking us Americans by sitting in our chairs, drinking their brown marsh water out of plastic bottles, and giggling to themselves. Shortly after that, I developed a primal imperative to hoard water at all costs. I forced myself not to take large gulps when I was thirsty and instead took small sips at intervals throughout the day. I began stashing water bottles in my tent. Given enough time, I could see myself manically digging holes all around the compound just large enough to store 16 ounce bottles. By the third day, however, my survival mania ended when I felt a little light headed in the midday sun. I drank all of my reserves in less than a few hours. It was a lesson about fear’s irrationality I didn’t need twice.
Step two wasn’t as easy as it sounded, “Conserve the first cup of water as you pour it slowly over your head, making sure to palm the falling drops at the top so it pools and mixes with the shampoo. Then begin to work the lather through the ends of your hair.” As I stood there naked in the open, with my little cup of water, I looked at the recently worn path behind our camp that villagers had been using to watch the drilling process. After the well was finished, the path would widen and smooth out as the walking patterns of women and children changed. They would no longer have to spend eight hours a day going back and forth to the marsh for unhealthy water. Instead, children would go to school and mothers could spend more time at home and then they would take their own full basins of water behind an old acacia tree.
I thought about all the water I had squandered in the name of vanity, and it made me self-conscious. Had I wasted time exfoliating my face in the shower back home? Did I really have to shave my legs while the water was running? I wondered if anybody on the path would see me as I undressed. I saw myself as if I were the stranger walking the path. I watched as my fingers untied the rubber band that let my hair fall in knots past my shoulders. I felt my identity slipping through my fingers. All that long hair, all that maintenance; it seemed quite ridiculous out there in the open where dust and thorns and heat commingle. Eight cups wouldn’t come close to washing it all. I could only hope to get it wet, clean my scalp, and rinse out some of the dirt.
Step three, “Follow the directions from step two with another cup of water but reuse the soapy lather spilling down from your head to wash your body starting with your face and moving downward to your neck and shoulders.” I originally thought the directions were ridiculous, the product of an over zealous team leader. I was a full grown adult. I could have figured out how to bathe myself with only a small basin of water. But, once I was there standing naked in the desert with four days of clay and sweat layered over my skin, I understood why this method was necessary. I wasn’t reaching into a tub again and again with the same dirty wash cloth spilling water all over the ground. Every drop of water was conserved and recycled on my body.
I had watched the drilling crew use this same philosophy in their operations. Salva, the founder of Water for South Sudan, had told us that in Africa, everything gets recycled. One day as the drill was about to break dirt, a rubber gasket broke on the mud pump. Without any supplies or stores nearby, the crew had to improvise. So they cut rubber from an old tire to match the gasket and then secured it with the steel from the tire. The mud pump worked and within a few days the well was complete. Old burlap bags got torn apart for sewing string. Old bladders used to carry water were cut up and used for patches. Everything was repurposed; even our empty water bottles weren’t wasted.
The final step, Step four, was a meditation in acceptance, “Continue to pour cups of water on your head. Keep lathering and soaping the bottom half of your body while simultaneously rinsing the top half until your body is clean.” In theory, this sounds like a great idea. Or maybe it works for people with no hair. I just became a muddy mess as brown suds dripped down my legs and dried. There wasn’t enough water to rinse the soap off of my hair let alone my body. I had anticipated this eight-cup bath for so long, but when I finally got it, all I wanted was a shower—a full freezing cold pouring gallons kind of shower that, by its sheer force would rinse the dirt away from all of my various cracks and pores. Or maybe that wasn’t enough. Maybe I also wanted to float in a pool of clean blue water surrounded by Italian tiles of vermillion while drinking an endless supply of iced lemonade. I never got to the pool, but in the end, I did get to see that beautiful moment when the drill finally reaches the aquifer, which in South Sudan is about 175 feet down.
Back home fresh from my shower, I thought about the day the drill had reached the aquifer. There's that moment when everyone is anticipating the geyser of clean fresh water that would explode out of the ground in great life changing force. I thought about how hot and thirsty and dusty I was, I considered the amount of restraint it takes to not turn a drop into a gallon, and I realized that the directions were less of an imperative than they were a meditation in consciousness—a thought I will keep with me as I head back to South Sudan, this time to evaluate wells drilled ten years ago.