For thousands of Malian women in the northern city of Gao, the day starts in the middle of the night. Women tie on veils, pick up jerrycans and walk through the sandy streets in hopes of getting a good spot in line.
Then the wait for water begins.
Just ask Aminata. She got to the well at dawn, but a long line had already formed. Some women had been waiting since 3am.
Aminata waited. And waited. The sun came up. The heat started. Women who beat her there swished by, balancing the day’s water on their heads.
After five hours of inching forward, she got to the well. But it was too late. All that was left were the dregs, a grainy, tea-colored slurry.
With the well dry, Aminata had two choices: rely on the Niger River for water – a chocolate brown, slow-moving broth that slithers by the edge of town. O,r wait for the slow seep of water back into the well.
Aminata decided to wait.
For women in Gao, water has become their nemesis. Without it, you can’t bath the kids, clean yourself after using the bathroom, or wash out the cinnamon-colored grit that settles onto your hair.
You can’t wash before prayers or quench your thirst – a problem in a city where temperatures have been averaging over 105 degrees.
“The water situation is disastrous,” says a Save the Children employee who works in Gao. “There’s not enough for everyone, and it’s not clean.”
The city’s water and electricity problems started not long after armed groups took over Gao on 31 March.
Electricity, which used to be available around the clock, now kicks on around 6pm and ends at 3am. That means the generators that pump water to the city work less frequently.
To make matters worse, some of the generators have broken down, which means a dramatic drop in the amount of water pumped through the city.
While water is still pumped to some parts of the city, people like Aminata, who live in the outlying areas, no longer receive piped water. They now must rely on shallow wells.
In one neighbourhood with a population of 23,000 people, water is no longer being distributed. For Aminata and others, that means longer lines at the wells.
A lack of clean water and poor sanitation systems has made humanitarian organisations fear a cholera outbreak.
Cholera is endemic in Mali, and last year 1,000 cases were reported in the North.
Distributing vital supplies
Save the Children distributed supplies to make life easier, things that few people have extra money to pay for these days, like a bucket for hauling water, soap, toothpaste and washcloths.
Many people take these things for granted. Not Agness*, a 60-year-old grandmother who takes care of eight family members.
“I left Menaka after the attack on the 17 January and went to Gao,” she said, after receiving her goods. “Today is the first time I have received anything. When I left my home in Menaka, I had to leave everything behind.”
When she got back to her straw shelter with sand floors and a plastic mat on the ground, her four-year-old granddaughter was thrilled.
“The toothbrush is for me grandma” she announced, “because you don’t have any more teeth!”
Agness smiled and looked relieved.
Relying on kindness
Agness said most days her children and grandchildren spend their time hustling on the streets to find money for food.
Prices on some basic goods have spiked 70%. A barter system has sprung up because banks are no longer functioning in Gao. The poorest of the poor rely on the kindness of others if they can’t afford food.
Zinab*, a 70-year-old grandmother, is thankful for the supplies from Save the Children and gently adds one last request, “We also need help with food and getting medical care. My children are suffering a lot; we don’t have as much to eat as we used to.”
Written by a Save the Children staff member in Mali
* Names have been changed