THE WOMEN OF KIBERA IN KENYA
The biblical stories of women at wells speak of hope and conversion. Rebekah demonstrates her kindness and generosity to Abraham’s servant and becomes the wife of Isaac. The Samaritan woman discovers the source of living water when Jesus defies all social conventions of the time and approaches her. Yet these positive experiences stand in sharp contrast to the every-day reality of many women and girls around the world.
Women and girls are particularly affected where clean water and safe sanitation are lacking. They are often responsible for fetching water, an exhausting task which deprives them of time and energy they could use to earn an income or go to school. The lack of clean water and sanitation is sorely felt by women and girls, for example during menstruation. It also puts them at risk of becoming victims of violence. Many women and girls face sexual harassment and rape when fetching water or when they have to go outside for lack of toilets in their homes. The burden of fetching water can aggravate domestic violence when women cannot cope with all the chores their husbands expect them to take on.
Biblical reflection: Water the source of life – and not of violence
Rev. Dr Priscille Djomhoue, professor at the Protestant University of Central Africa in Cameroon, explores biblical narratives of women’s experiences at the well. Read more…
Amnesty International has documented the situation of women in Kibera, Kenya, one of the largest slums in the world, where women live under constant threat of violence.
Water the source of life – and not of violence
Reflection by the Rev. Dr Priscille Djomhoue Cameroon
So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough and ran again to the well to draw, and she drew for all his camels. (Genesis 24,20)
The priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. But some shepherds came and drove them away. Moses got up and came to their defence and watered their flock. (Exodus 2,16-17)
Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ (John 4, 13-14)
Water is the source and powerhouse of life. Without it the earth would be an arid desert, where life would be impossible because of famine and drought. Even though we know that it can be the cause of death (through floods, drowning and water-borne diseases), water is generally seen and appreciated for the advantages and benefits that it brings to the life of living beings. When Christ’s side was pierced and water flowed from it (John 19:34), he was like the rock from which water flowed to quench the thirst of God’s people as they journeyed to the Promised Land (1 Cor. 10:4; John 7:38). He is also the temple (John 2:19ff) from which the river flows to sustain and give life to the New Jerusalem (John 3:37; Rev. 22:1 &17). Moreover, the Holy Spirit, the life-giving power of God the creator, is compared to water (John 7:39), as a symbol of the whole of the Good News brought by Christ (John 7:37b-38), the symbol of the everlasting blessedness of the elect, whom the Lamb, their shepherd, leads to rich pastures.
Water is essential for life. We use it for washing ourselves, cleaning our homes, drinking, cooking, washing up, washing our clothes, and so on. However, in Africa, and in many developing countries, not everyone has access to drinking water. In towns and in rural areas water is worth its weight in gold. People often have to travel long distances to find a supply of water in a river or a spring, and then carry it on their heads or their backs, exposing them to the risks of malformation of the spine or other back troubles. In many town areas, as is often the case in Cameroon, water has to be bought from a neighbour who has been able to have a well dug or who has mains water. That is not a new situation, since in the Bible, water was often such a scarce commodity that mention is made of people paying for it (Num. 20:17-19; Lam. 5:4).
Sadly, the laborious task of fetching water for the home in Africa falls to girls and women – as was the case in the Bible (Gen 24:11-19; Exod. 2:16-17; John 4:7). The text of Exodus 2: 15b-22 tells the story of seven daughters who were driven away by unknown shepherds and who had their right to draw water from the wells denied them. It was Moses, the foreign Egyptian, who rescued them from those who violated their rights. “They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. But some shepherds came and drove them away. Moses got up and came to their defence and watered their flock.” He was subsequently welcomed and given hospitality by the young women’s father. In Africa, many women are denied their rights and do not have the money to buy water from their neighbours. This situation makes them vulnerable when an urgent need for water arises. In September 2009 in Yaoundé, in an area called Mendong, two young girls under the age of 12 were regularly sexually abused by the man in charge of the well where they often had to go to fetch water for their mothers. The police took up the matter, but it was too late. The physical and psychological damage done to them was immense.
The story of Rebekah (Gen, 24:1-27) describes a situation similar to that in the rural areas of Africa. In the course of fetching water from remote wells, Rebekah meets Abraham’s servants, who had come in search of a wife for Abraham’s son. This episode shows how very vulnerable Rebekah was when she was approached by those unknown men who were going to take a decision that was going to affect her future life. Would that generally be unthinkable in today’s world…? No! That is the situation in several African countries, where women and girls are openly approached in this way. They have to walk for kilometres along lonely roads and across remote terrain to fetch water and they are often harassed or raped by men who lie in wait for them in places where there are few passers-by. That shows how immensely vulnerable these women are, even though these encounters might equally well have a positive outcome, as was the case with Rebekah. Her situation was the opposite of that experienced by many women in Africa. She had come as usual to fetch water for all her family, but she also did it for the passing travellers and their camels. “So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough and ran again to the well to draw, and she drew for all his camels” (Gen. 24:20).
Rebekah’s kindness, her service, her humility and modesty were much appreciated and she became Isaac’s wife. That gratitude does not come as a matter of course. Many wives find that they are shouted at and ill treated, because, after having spent a lot of time fetching water from a distance, they have not been able to do all the housework that their husbands demand. They are torn between having to get the housework done in time and the permanent lack of a water supply. In these modern days, we need to read again the story of Rebekah and learn from her visitors, so that we appreciate and value the service given by women to their families and husbands.
The provision of drinking water for all and the removal of the burden of fetching water are challenges for the whole of humankind. The words of our Lord Jesus, who symbolically offered water to the Samaritan woman so that she would no longer have to venture forth alone to the well at all hours, are a challenge to women and men to claim more decent living conditions: “Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14). Women should have access to, and control of, the resources for production, and have their say on government policies, particularly in the framing of legislation. This would enable them to work for their problems to be heard and to sweep away those cultural attitudes that conspire to reinforce their difficulties. The voice of Christ challenges men, women, and public authorities to focus on one of the most important priorities for life: drinking water for all.
The Rev. Dr Priscille Djomhoue is a professor of Greek and New Testament at the Protestant University of Central Africa at Yaounde, Cameroon, and is a member of the Circle of Concerned African Woman Theologians.
Opinions expressed in Biblical reflections do not necessarily reflect EWN and WCC policy. This material may be reprinted freely, providing credit is given to the author.
Background and resources
Twice as Thirsty: Women, Children & Water (pdf)
This 4-page resource paper by Church World Service describes the special burden women and children bear in getting water for their families.
Insecurity and Indignity:
Women’s Experiences in the Slums of Nairobi, Kenya (pdf)
The majority of Nairobi’s population lives in informal settlements and slums, in inadequate housing with little access to clean water, sanitation, health care, schools and other essential public services. This report by Amnesty International shows the situation of women and girls who live in these situations and who are particularly affected by lack of adequate sanitation facilities for toilets and bathing.
Download “Insecurity and Indignity” (Full report in in English)
Download “Risking rape to reach a toilet” (Summary)
The Women of Kibera
This film by Amnesty International Canada introduces just a few of the thousands of women whose daily lives are blighted by poverty and serious human rights violations in one of the largest slums in the world.
Streams of grace (pdf)
This dossier lifts up a sampling of examples from materials received by the WCC showing how the churches and communities of Christians and others are acting with determination and conviction to overcome violence against women and children.
Women Creating a Safe World (pdf)
Reflections, liturgical resources, and Bible reading plan by the YMCA and YWCA.