Mati: The hot topic in the village

Mati is the Shangaan word for water.

Water is a huge issue in the village. Huntington has four boreholes, which is not enough to support the village. There are more boreholes in the village, but apparently the pumps have been stolen to the rest of them. There are water taps throughout the village- our water tap by our house supports 15 families. The taps are a fascinating place to people watch on water day. Our water is turned on three times during a two-week period. It takes all day to collect water. There’s a strict rotation system. At our tap, each woman is allowed to collect nine jugs of water during her turn. If you need more, you wait until everyone else gets water and then collect again. It seems extremely inefficient, in that they should just let one woman collect all of her water before moving on, but there is a fear that the water will run out, and once it’s gone, you have to wait another four or five days for water again. If you run out of water before then, your options are to a.) take your wheelbarrow and collect dirty water from the dam (many people do laundry down there to save their house water) or b.) go down to one of the shabeens with a private borehole and pay 2 rand to fill up a jug. I’ve seen plenty of people gather water from the dam, but ideally, you get all the water you need during your collection day at the tap. We have become dangerously low on running out of water, but sadly that’s life here. I have had to hold off on doing laundry or skimp on my bathing water to make sure we make it to our next water collection day.

How to boil water

We settled in our first evening, and with permission to use the kitchen when they were done, we decided to cook pasta. We scooped some water from a bucket into a small pot, turned the stove on high, and waited. And waited, and waited, and waited. Forty minutes later we were staring at each other in the kitchen wondering if dinner would be this big of a drain every night. The water refused to boil so we dumped the noodles in and hoped it was hot enough to cook. Lesson learned: Boil water in the electric kettle first before putting it on the stove.

The Latrine

After dinner we had to go to the bathroom. People don’t go out to the latrine after dark. Actually, they don’t really go out after dark at all. We awkwardly went out the front door, past our family watching tv, and the whole time I just kept thinking, ‘These people think we’re crazy.’ I swatted a little roach out of the latrine with a broom and was faced with the ‘How does this work?’ moment.

I’ve used long-drop toilets a million times. They’re all over Africa and southeast Asia. Most are just a cement floor with a hole in the ground that you squat over. Ours was actually at chair height with a hole. I wasn’t about to sit on it, so in theory, I assumed you’re supposed to hover. The problem, however, is that the hole on ours is just slightly too far back. To this day, I actually stand on the latrine platform. Yes, too much information I’m sure, but it just wasn’t made for those who would prefer to hover.

Our latrine also sits on the front corner of our yard at the intersection of our street and a busy footpath. Our latrine has no door- just a half wall in front of it. Stand too far forward in the latrine and the neighbors with a million kids see you drop your pants. If you don’t squat down far enough, you can make eye contact with people in the street. All in all it’s not so bad, save for the occasional “Hello Laura! How are you?” that I hear at night sometimes when I approach the latrine. It’s pitch black out so all I can say is “Who is that?” and then greet them as I enter the toilet. But those awkward moments make it count, right?

Our first evening as we climbed into bed, our English-speaking cousin popped her head in and left us a bucket to use in the night, should we have to go to the bathroom. Preferring to stick to our Western idea of the toilet, at 11pm, we both had to go. We knew it wasn’t customary and the front door creaked so loud that we were afraid to wake people. Not being able to stand it any longer, we got up. Upon approaching the front door with our headlamps on, we see a folded piece of paper jammed in the door. Oh great- our first thought was that kokwana was using it as a spy mechanism to see if we were sneaking out. We were so nervous about it and just had to keep telling ourselves that these people must think were crazy. It wasn’t until a few nights in that it dawned on us that the front door rattles from the wind and that the paper jammed in the door prevents it; clearly, jumping to conclusions proved wrong but we had a good laugh upon realizing how paranoid we were.

Needless to say, kokwana collected our bucket in the morning, and we never saw it again. (Update: This has since changed. Recent petty theft in the village means kokwana has banned us from using the latrine at night. She gave us our own bucket and even did a squatting demo for us- probably one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen!)


I thought a bucket bath sounded like a piece of cake. I did it both times I went to Kenya, and at least here I could heat water in an electric kettle instead of over the fire. However, this was my first time bathing indoors. My first bucket bath consisted of getting half the water on me and half the water on the floor. I slowly improved, and after finding a wider bucket to use, it’s gotten better. Since I have to rinse my hair back into the bucket though, I find that I’m conditioning my hair with soapy water. It’s a challenge to get all of the product out of my hair with sudsy water… I still haven’t conquered that one but it’s a work in progress.


All in all, I’m living in the situation but I can’t imagine dealing long-term with this constant battle with water. I helped collect water one day when I had free time, and those jugs are heavy! We had to go through the rotation twice to get enough water for our house and it took hours. Not to mention that my cousin’s mother insisted I wheel her water to her house, only to hit a bump and send a jug falling off the wheelbarrow (which another cousin managed to grab just in time).

Even as we discuss small business ideas, water plays a major role. We live right next to some of the best private game reserves in South Africa. The lodges send their laundry to the closest major town- which isn’t that close. One guy in the village had the idea to start a laundry service because it would be cost effective and the lodges expressed interest. However, how do you run a laundry service if you don’t have enough water?

Ask any villager what the biggest problem is in Huntington, and they’ll most likely say water (most times, even before they mention the high unemployment rate). It baffles me when I sit down and think about the time it consumes just to collect it, let alone how it slows down the bathing, cooking, and cleaning process. I’ve adjusted to the slow pace of life in the village, but for now, it’s time for me to figure out this whole pee-in-a-bucket thing. Jealous?

6 thoughts on “Mati: The hot topic in the village

  • I have no problem peeing in a bucket. :) Sounds like an episode of Survivor where water is life. Or is that fire? Whatever the case, water has to be a central focus of everyone’s life when it’s a struggle to get a hold of.

    A smart person could surely come up with an idea to install some nifty filtration system in villages so they don’t have to rely on the bore.

  • I haven’t peed in a bucket but there was plenty of peeing in the bush a few months ago O:-) I almost miss it ;-) Never had to do any other business outside, in a bucket, or with a squat toilet though — and while people say it’s great, I just don’t want to go there til I have to!

    The water situation sounds so dire. I think it would be such a difficult choice to use it for laundry, bathing, and even some cooking when you know you need enough to drink.

    I’m so thankful you’re able to share a look into your experiences this summer and what your village experiences every day. It’s obviously not something I’ve experienced first hand, so learning from you is a great gift.

  • Wow! It is so easy to take clean running water for granted. I won’t complain about a cold shower again (because at least there’s a shower). Okay, I might still complain, but then I’ll remember your post and try to tough it out without whining :-)

  • Thanks for sharing. This is a very interesting problem to read about. Has your group thought about brining in some volunteer engineers to help tackle the problem? I’ve met a couple people involved with Engineers Without Borders and I know they’ve been able to tackle similar problems.

    Talk soon!

  • It’s amazing what we complain about without thinking about what others in the world are going through. My hair is so long I think I would freak. Or maybe not. Being in South Africa is still a many others don’t even get to travel. Good on you to take it all in stride. Sometimes in the Peruvian jungle, when you’re on a rickety bus and you gotta go the women pee in plastic bags and toss them over! Same same-but different.

  • When you hear stories like this it really makes you think the next time you want to complain about something. 9 buckets of water seems like a lot but not enough for two weeks. I agree only washing clothing in the river and saving the water for important things like drinking and cooking. I was a little too much on the details about the

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