“Water Works” by Dai Lin

Water works

By 10 a.m., the African sun has baked me into the ground at 97 degrees. Like an overgrown, overripe mango, my body drops, collapses, puddles. The Ghanaian women around me are fasting from dawn ‘til dusk, without water, for Ramadan. At the dugout, they dunk and fill their water vessels with a blurring swoop. The brimming canister, one I can barely lift empty, rests gracefully on their heads as they saunter back to the village, a mile away. Full of breakfast, clean water, and sunscreen, I struggle to keep upright.

Each morning, our alarms break the silence at 5:30. My roommate and I quietly step our way to the cafeteria, filling up with Nutella sandwiches and the occasional egg. By 6:05, I am in the trunk of a rusting hatchback, our driver and translator up front, and my three other teammates in the backseat. By 7:15 we are parked in front of our village chief’s hut. Myriads of children circle our car.









In Dagbani, we greet and repeat as people filter in and out, in and out. Good morning, naaaa, good morning, naaa, How did you sleep? I slept well. The three weeks move chronologically like this:

In the morning, we are in the village,

assessing water resources

meeting the chief

meeting the community

setting up the stand

cleaning the polytank and the three drums

training the women on alum and chlorine

watching the women take ownership

watching the women lead

watching the women customize and improve

distributing safe storage containers and educating households

Opening Day! watching the women entrepreneurs sell water at 1/40th the market price –

watching 112 households line up for clean water –

arriving quarter past 7 the following day to tanks already filled with clean water –

to women already onto their next task.

In the afternoons, we are in the markets – half acre pocket squares of alleyways and portable stands scattered throughout Tamale – shopping for supplies. My neck is unsure of which way to crane. My feet are trying to sidestep trash, sewage, and feets. My elbows are trying to keep to themselves. My head is trying not to knock over the markets on other people’s heads. My body is trying not to walk into a car. The rhythm of exchanges excites my body, but not enough to overcome the weight of the afternoon heat.

In the evening, we return to our compound, secluded. 24 American students tucked behind story-high walls. At 6pm, our program leader facilitates group reflections. It has the uncanny tempo of summer camp.

In the village, they are thanking us, blessing us, and appreciating us, always. I’m speechless in my own gratitude. At night, I grumble to my roommate, “development is a world where the longer I hang, the more uncomfortable I feel,” as we sprawl over our stiff beds, dissipating the day’s worth of heat under the A/C. She says it just feels right for her. So, I burrow into my thoughts. It’s my first time working in development since Peace Corps and I realize it is a space where time spent exponentially correlates with deeper emotional, psychological, and intellectual discomfort. Is it this exact challenge that hinges me to this work?

I am angry. I’m angry we run daily showers in our compound while the dugout runs dry half the year. I’m angry on behalf of the global north for extracting and continuing to extract from their land. Deforestation is all around us. They burn to cook. They chop to export. Mining carries on. Foreigners enter. Families uprooted. Grounds blasted. Diamonds sold. Gold smuggled. Yet, here they are, teaching me about love, acceptance, joy. One woman had asked – can we bathe with this clean water? – and they laughed and laughed and laughed before we could respond.

I am ashamed. My hands are soft, free of callouses. I can wield a wrench, tightening tiny spigots on the safe storage containers. They ask us to paint their village name on the polytank because our handwriting is prettier. Appreciation and admiration for hands that look and feel so small. Hands that can’t carry. Hands that don’t work.

Time whirls by and I am back in Boston. Those first few weeks, turning on the faucet brings me tears. Weakness overtakes my body as I put a cup under the flow of uncontaminated water and bring it to my lips. July, I cannot open my laptop. The world’s market, fingertaps away. Fresh, new, minted items, available at my doorsteps within 24 hours. Gold, that’s traveled halfway across the globe on a trail of blood, just two mindless clicks away.

The market in Tamale is scattered with recycled materials. Scattered undersells it. The only new materials I can recall are food, handmade goods, and fresh fabric. The fabric designs have tales, many of which are lost, but some are captured by shoppers and shop-keeps. Tales that weave together long-lost stories with timeless fashion. I see our driver, who works 16-hour days, commutes for 2, and sees his family briefly, shyly rest his hand on a fabric before quickly turning away. They break fast tomorrow. He is to dress in new attire, but this he cannot afford.

Piles of used clothes, still bright and without holes, printed with English or Chinese, lay in heaps on street sides. Soccer league jerseys and school uniforms that have traveled far from home to rest. Women bend over to ruffle the piles and examine the goods. The babies wrapped on their backs sway up and down, up and down. Who decided these outfits, tires, cars, metals, phones were no longer ‘good to use’?

Behind me, the streets sing. Beepbeep beepbeep, the taxis, tuk-tuks, and cars honk hello as they pass and give way to one another. Walking markets sway through the streets, the men and women attached advertise their goods in shouts I can’t comprehend. Children carrying styrofoam boxes of FanMilk ice cream sprint and scream after cars, hoping for a trade. At this exchange rate, nothing is unaffordable so I eventually come home with four handmade jumpsuits and their matching blazers. The feeling of wealth hangs heavy with responsibility. Again, the waterworks begin to bubble.

It’s hard to unpack what has quaked in my soul. Their kindness, generosity, and love made room for me to blossom in tranquility, laughter, and contentment: flow.

Flow is sitting inside the chief’s hut with all the kids who don’t have schools to attend, scooting our positions, as the rains, bellowing through the two doors, slowly find our toes and feet, giggling at the tickles. Flow is knowing time, not as numbers but, as the sun and as the heat. Flow is handing over tampons and our translator finding himself leading a demonstration, threading the plastic tubing through a circle formed by his forefinger and thumb, his spontaneous makeshift vagina. Flow is his not breaking eye contact, his not cracking a smile, his asking and translating so he can teach with responsibility. Flow is accepting that things are different and choosing curiosity over certainty, being okay, the day before opening day, when the women complained that the water was ‘too clear.’ Flow is driving away as the thunderstorm swirls dirt as high as my eyes could see, enveloped by its maroon darkness. Flow is my team sprinting into the thunderstorm to fulfill my dream of a group photo with a majestic tree, standing singular in the horizon of stumps. Flow is my body in a car driving away, but my heart, spirit, and soul rooting even deeper into the red dirt.


Dai (/dī/) Lin dwells in the Front Range Foothills of Colorado where a playful, but timid black bear frequents her back alley. She dreams of one day supporting herself and a pasture of llamas through her writing.