Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday News Reporter
NDABA Ngoma remembers the night of 17 May.
Water had just started flowing through the taps in Luveve again after several days of the Bulawayo City Council’s scheduled water rationing.
The return of the precious liquid, chronically in short supply in Bulawayo, changed people’s evening routine that fateful day.
Containers with water were emptied, sometimes into thirsty gardens whose soil had also not tasted a drop in weeks. The containers were then filled up again eagerly as men, women and children all got busy.
But Ngoma noticed that there was something off, something different about this “latest” water that they were receiving. It had a strange smell and was muddy.
“There was a strange smell and it didn’t look or feel like clean water. But whenever water returns after a while it always has a muddy look so I thought it was something that would go away. So, at around 7pm I drank two glasses,” Ngoma, the ward chairperson of the local residents’ association told Sunday News.
That night Ngoma did not get a wink of sleep. That night, his stomach joined the choir of nocturnal insects and creatures, growling loudly as if to signal that something had gone terribly wrong. Just after midnight, his tummy started running and he rushed to the toilet. He was to spend the night there.
“For me it started at 00.45am. I held on thinking it would go away. My stomach was growling and by 01.45 I gave up and went to the toilet. I thought maybe I had a minor stomach bug and the stomach was cleansing itself. I went back in the house. I couldn’t rest. Up until 5am I was still in the toilet,” he said.
The toilets in Luveve, like other older suburbs in the city, are located outside residences. A glance at his neighbours’ houses told Ngoma that they were also going through the same ordeal.
That late in the night, lights were on, and front doors were open throughout the night. His neighbours were going through a similar ordeal.
“In the morning everyone told me that they had a similar problem. It couldn’t be food because there had been no mass funeral gatherings because of Covid-19 regulations. There had been no weddings either. On the 19th the residents went to the housing office to complain about the issue. But even then, you could notice that most of them were struggling and weak,” he said.
Ever since that night, the typhoid outbreak has taken 13 lives and left hundreds bedridden. The people of Luveve are despondent and they are afraid of the water that flows through their taps. Death, they fear, could now just be a sip away. Advice from city health officials only added to their fears.
“When they told people to boil the water that’s when the fear grew. Because it gave us the impression that there’s something really wrong with the water,” said Ngoma.
Boiling the water, has provided little consolation, as it does not seem to significantly alter its state.
“People are boiling water but those that are boiling say there’s no difference. When you boil the water, there is some white stuff that remains on the side of the container after you’ve finished. So, we have little trust for the water,” Ngoma said.
When Sunday News visited Luveve, Brian Sibanda (31) approached the news crew eager to share his story. One hand holding a bottle of mineral water and another gesticulating as he spoke.
Sibanda narrated how he had been through hell, unable to get out of bed for over a month. That afternoon, he had just gone outside because he missed the winter sun’s rays on his skin.
“It’s been only been three days since I recovered and life has been hard. This is not my body. I’ve lost a lot of weight and I’m weak. I was bedridden and couldn’t work,” he said.
“I’m now drinking this expensive water not because I want to or I have money. It’s just that I have no choice. People who haven’t experienced this don’t know what we have had to deal with.
“I’m out of the house now not because I have any purpose but rather because I want to exercise and let my body gain strength. I want to feel the sun because I had forgotten what it feels like to be outside.”
For Mthokozisi Nyathi (65) the most frustrating thing about the outbreak is the fact that they have no clue about what caused it and how it can be stopped.
“We don’t know what to do really. We just boil the water and hope for the best. The most worrying thing is that they haven’t told us exactly what is wrong with the water. At any moment any one of us can get sick or die. This is the reality we are now living with,” Nyathi said.
The fear of water in Luveve is now obvious and even children now know water is something to be wary of. They have watched as pupils and fellow playmates passed on because of stomach problems. The wounds on their hearts are still fresh and as other children continue to fall ill and die, it will take a while for their scars to heal.
“As I speak there’s a Grade 5 pupil at Thembiso who passed away yesterday,” said Ngoma. “I’m talking about young schoolchildren who now know so and so has passed away from the water-borne stomach illness.
“This is a traumatising experience for them. They’re afraid of water. We don’t warn them to stay away from the taps and not waste water anymore. They don’t go near it. They used to learn that water is life but now they know it’s the opposite.”
The fear of water is not confined to Luveve. Those in neighbouring suburbs are also now watching their water with a suspicious eye, afraid that maybe death might also be flowing in their own pipes. All it takes is a growl of the stomach to spark off panic.
“We are not from here but we are also afraid of the water in our homes because we fear that it may be contaminated,” said Josephine Moyo (45) of Gwabalanda.
“There are areas that are quite near to each other so we fear that we might have the same problem. Nowadays whenever one gets a tummy ache, your heart beats faster because you immediately feel like you might have the same thing that has taken so many lives already. You fear that the same thing that’s affecting your neighbours may have started on your as well.”
Ngoma narrates how one teacher now sources her water in Emakhandeni, while a family that recently lost a loved one to the outbreak now relies on deliveries of water from family members in Nkulumane. While such measures reassure those consuming tap water that they are safe, Bulawayo’s reputation as the one place where people can drink water off the tap without fear is now under threat.
For Ngoma, all this could have been avoided if the local authority had shown early and decisive leadership.
“If they had acted on the 19th, if all their technical departments had gone on alert, I don’t think that we would have seen so many deaths. They waited for death to act. Maybe they have a specific number that they want to see die before they act.”
The councillor for the area, Clr Phebbie Msipa, last week said 17 people had died from diseases related to the bad water.