The best time to sink a 91-meter borehole in Ruambwa

The ‘Mulipuko’ water point fitted with a handpump is the center of activity in Ruambwa, a small village near Port Victoria. The manually operated water borehole is operated mostly by women and children like a gym lat pull-down that looks easy until you try and can only manage a trickle. Built by KEFINCO (Kenya Finland Cooperation) in the 1980s along 1399 other boreholes and 1363 hand-dug wells across Western Kenya the Mulipuko– local for explosion, got its name from the blasts that were used to blow up the rocky layers to get to fresh water.

Bunyala infamous for its flooding is a paradoxically an acutely water scarce area with most shallow wells yielding very salty water which means most residents have to walk long distances to Kefinco boreholes for water. When I ask to take some photos, the women ask me whether am taking them to Nairobi. I tell them yes, and explain I am a journalist following the story of boreholes and water problems in the area during this acute drought. Have they heard that Obado Obado a local in the area has sunk the first fresh water well in the area in over forty years striking an acquifer in the process who intends to give the community the water for free, I ask them.

“Oyo, nadakha chikura sa ni khumuba, mundu worurerera machi, amala chishida chiefwe chiosi,” –That one if he wants our vote we will give him, someone who brings us water has solved all our problems. A woman tells me.

Residents here are not used to philanthropy and equate every community project to politics. You cannot blame them. Just a few meteres away two ego projects by rival Members of Parliament compete for irrelevance among the local community whose priorities seem to be disregarded by their leadership.

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Sports Cabinet Secretary Ababu Namwamba built a rice drier in the area when he was the area Member of Parliament, which includes an L-shaped shed and a small platform where the rice is supposed to be sundried. There is no machine on the disused contraption and farmers see no sense of transporting the rise for kilometers to spread the rise on a slab rather than do it in front of their own homes.

Maybe in jest, the current Member of Parliament Raphael Mbita Wanjala is building a secondary school just next to the disused drier and named it Habenga Okondo Secondary school after one of the first legislators in the Budalangi constituency and former chairman of real estate company Tysons Habenga, Peter Habenga Okondo. John Osogo the brother to Okondo’s political nemesis James Osogo also has a secondary school named after him in the area that has about ten secondary schools mostly ill equipped and acute teacher shortages. At the school, an incomplete structure where the millions have not been enough to cover the open blocks and the top floor remains undone with no construction worker in site, a shallow well has been sunk into the ground which has only yielded brackish water.

“Kano ne keichumbi onyala sa ongwesia chingombe, ano noyaba esisima onyola sa magadi,”– The water here is very salty and can only be used for cows, here if you dig a well all you will get is soda ash, John Ouma Khainja tells me.

But just next two these two projects, Obado Obado, owner of popular Nairobi City hotel Café Deli has sunk a well that has gone deep enough to hit sweet soft water and residents are excited about the prospects of getting clean tap water for free. Khainja the balding young man whose eye brows are constantly creased to shade his eyes from the sun is staring at the prospect of getting this water just next door. He tell me his crops have always done badly since Budalangi has very short rainy seasons, just one month but the water is so much it floods the fields then disappears for most of the year leaving the land dry cracked oven that yields nothing. The land here is mostly scrub dominated by the hardy acacia whose double-breasted bulbs sprout more thorns than leaves make up both the trees and shrubs.

But Mr Obado whose project seems to have resonated more with the community than what the politicians offered, says he has no interest in politics but rather wants to use the water for an integrated horticulture and chicken farming into his hotel chain farm to fork. He is part of the successful Bunyala elite who are changing the narrative of the backwater constituency urging other Manyala diaspora to invest and change the face of the area. New money is already trickling in to a multi-million water plant producing Chill Water, hotels including Acacia Gardens and Home Park and private schools like my parent’s Lake Breeze Primary.

“Traditionally, when you moved from your father’s home, you went with your first wife to the spot where you will build your homestead and you sunk a spear, and on that spot no matter where you went even if your wife left you and remarried, she will be brought back to be buried at that spot, it ties you there,” Mr Obado tell me. “It is symbolic for claiming your corner of the earth,” I say. “Yes exactly,” he agrees with me saying  we have a lot of Manyala in the diaspora who prefer settling away from our home, one because of the high dependency ratio that can drain the little savings one has set aside for retirement and the fact that there is little investments they have done at home that can offer an economic incentive to settle back where our ancestors first sunk the spear that should have anchored us to this spot on the entire earth. 

When he first sought to turn this bare windy and dry land to yield tomatoes, onions and traditional vegetables like suga, dodo, managu and saga the drought struck. They shrivelled and dried out, the farm manager Rapando Kevin tell me the ground was so dry when they watered it in the evening it was literally smoking steam, and when they switched to the morning, the water simply evaporated in three hours leaving the ground bone dry.  He says the well will be a game changer that will allow him to pump 10,000 litters an hour into storage tanks that will not only be enough for the horticulture project but to grow 2000 trees including oranges and mangoes, set up a fish pond and farm maize, soya, sunflower and barley that will form the primary raw materials for the planned animal feeds production.

Dr Mahaga Bomba who has struggled for eight years to set his orchid in Budalangi which includes valencia oranges, pixie tangerines, avocados, apples and oranges, says the biggest challenge for him has been water. He used to hire a water bowser that charged Kes7000 to bring water from the Inyanja-Lake Victoria, which was not sustainable in the long run. He said however sinking such a borehole that would require about Kes1.5 million did not make economic sense for his small project but believes that the move by Mr Obado is likely to attract Manyala capital around it, getting more like-minded people to come together to build an economy around it, especially with the lessons from the current drought.

“This is the best time to dig for water when the water table is lowest during this drought and when people see the most value in water, you cannot get mboga ya kienyeji, Si wakha nyola, noreba sukuma bakhuborera mbwe ya Kes50 iera sa mundu mulala,” You cannot get traditional foods, and if you ask for kales, Kes50 worth is only enough for one person.