A Six-Woman Well

(The Nationalist, 8 March 2002)


A colleague of mine who worked as a missionary in the Turkhana Desert in northern Kenya told me of how, when he was teaching English in a boys’ secondary school, he gave the boys, newly-returned from the long holiday, an essay to write on the topic, “The most exciting thing to happen in my village this year”.

One boy told his story. In his village they had a six-woman well. (Here, I should explain what this means. Women draw water from the wells; these are often deep and steps are cut into their side, with a landing part-way down. A six-woman well was a very deep one with six landings. The woman at the bottom would draw out a bucket of water, carry it up to the next landing, and from there it would go up to the top, landing by landing. Then a man would take it, pour it into a trough for the animals and return to sit with his friends in the shade, solving the problems of the world.)

One day The Big Man of the village came leading an ox-drawn sleigh to get water. He was The Big Man because he alone had oil-drums, two of them, of 200 litres capacity each – very precious items – in which to store water. As he approached the well, a lion sprang from cover and charged at the oxen. They panicked, ran, crashed through the protective barrier around the mouth of the well and fell all the way to the bottom. The sleigh was wrecked, the oxen killed, but the worst of all was that each of the oil-drums was punctured and rendered useless. Everyone felt sorry for The Big Man because of the great loss he had suffered.

The boy concluded his essay with the afterthought, ‘One woman also was killed’.

What reveals us most are our assumptions. What is communicated to the next generation without examination or question are our assumptions. Without explanation or justification assumptions simply insinuate themselves. That is because of what they are – assumptions.

Everyone in the story assumed that drawing water was women’s work, and that the loss of a woman could not be compared to the loss of an oil-drum. Women are replaceable, but where do you get an oil-drum?

What are the assumptions that you and I make that would leave people of another time or culture open-mouthed with amazement, wondering what sort of people we were who could accept such attitudes unthinkingly?