Maji ni Moja

Long after eruption
turned trees into moss-
shrouded skeletons, rainwater
formed another crater at the
foot of the volcano,
a placid lake of clear water
surrounded by forest and fields.

We always kept a Zodiac
docked on the shore
for water skiing, bass fishing, or
just to get to the float for a swim
to avoid wading out
because of the bilharzia-bearing
snails around the edge.

When they began reclaiming
colonial farms my father
moved north of Nairobi
leaving a son behind
to manage the place,
to control the destiny of
this soil, this water, these trees.

We always cared for
our watu, piping clean water
into their quarters, providing
medical care, school fees,
an extra bag of mealies
on payday to make sure
no one went hungry.

The day we drove the truck
down to the lake
with the dogs in the back
I recognized them:
two young men
of uncertain ambition
looking for an opportunity.

“Wait till we get to the middle
before you light that up, but
let’s get rid of these dogs first,
they’re all over me, just chuck
them over the side, they can use
the exercise swimming to shore, no way
they get back in once they’re wet.”

They were waiting for us at the dock
before we could drop the tailgate
the taller one confronted me:
“Why are you washing your dogs
in our water? The water we depend on
for fish? The water we drink and
carry back to our village for cooking?”

“Your water? This lake belongs to
everyone, my friend, to you, to me,
and to my dogs who are no dirtier
than those kids playing in the mud
on the shore.” I was doing my best
to stay even, backing toward the truck.
“Why do you insult our children?”

“The lake is larger than us, ndugu
bigger than my farm or your village
deeper than anyone can imagine, so how
can two dogs swimming make a difference?”
“Because maji ni moja, water is one,
the filth of your dogs spreads throughout
the lake and no one can stop it.”

“Water is one means plenty for everyone.
And if you’re here to collect water
where are the buckets to carry it home?
Don’t you have a standpipe in your village?”
“Not us, but our mothers and sisters
come here to collect water.
Again you insult us!”

“I meant no disrespect, to you
or your family. Now stand
aside and let me pass.” With much
spitting of gravel and grinding of gears
I steered the truck around them and
sped off up the hill, wet dogs barking
furiously from the encaged bed.

In and out of court for years after that,
one trumped up charge after another
until they finally wore me down.
In the end we abandoned the farm,
knocked about here and there
eventually settling down under
where the climate suited us.

Caravaned around the country
doing a bit of this and that,
ended up growing coffee again,
up here in the mountains. Not an
easy go of it. But that’s another story.
One more glass and time to sleep. We’ve
got a big pick ahead of us tomorrow.

Dead and dying coffee trees
surround the farmhouse,
now a luxury hotel;
a nature trail rings the lake
where ecotourists float canoes,
and snails feed on the deflated Zodiac
sunk amongst the reeds.

© 2014 Jim Ramsay, all rights reserved.