Monday 11 June 2018


A typical Mai Ruwa with his truck. 
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Due to a failure of government to meet basic infrastructural necessities like constant power supply, running water, good health care and quality education for its citizens, many people are constantly having to provide these necessities for themselves. In fact, it has become quite normal for households to provide their own water and electricity and pay exorbitant fees for quality education and healthcare for themselves and their families.

Personally, I can’t remember when we had water flowing from the tap from the water board. If I could put a time to it, I would have to say when I was an early teen. I remember this because for the longest time, we used to fetch water at our neighbors wells to fill the big drums that most big families had. And when these neighbors didn’t have water or there was short supply during the dry season, we were always prevented from fetching water. This continued until we dug our own well and became kings.

Soon enough, many families started to bore holes in their houses and rig a system that stores and distributes water to them. It has become common place to see each house with its own ‘GP Tank’; typical case of a brand name replacing the generic name. As it is right now, the skyline of many houses are dotted with these water storage tanks.

Drilling boreholes is not cheap. It costs anywhere from 150,000 to 2 million. In a country where 64% of the populace lives below the poverty line and is expected to take over from India as the poverty capital capital of the world (United Nations: Nigeria’s Common Country Analysis, 2016), where general unemployment rate is at a whopping 18.8% (Nigeria Bureau of Statistics, 2017 Q3 Report) and where the average person struggles daily, access to clean, safe water is an ever-constant issue. This means that though all households need water, not all families can afford to have boreholes installed in their homes.

'GP Tanks' for storing water pumped from a borehole. 
Image: Premium Times Nigeria
This is where the Mai Ruwa comes in.

The Mai Ruwa is a Hausa term which translates to ‘water seller’. The term can be used for a person who has a borehole and sells water to people who go to them to fetch or to one who takes water in 20-litre jerrycans to people’s houses to sell. In most cases, it refers to the latter.

A typical Mai Ruwa starter pack is a trolley (or truck as they are popularly called), 12 to 14 jerrycans and an able bodied man with the simplest of clothes and worn out shoes. Unfortunately, I haven’t ever seen a female Mai Ruwa. Or should I say, fortunately. So this is one of those jobs that is strictly an all men affair.

The job requires pushing a truck carrying around 300 litres of water from street to street calling out people to buy. In poorer neighborhood, they don’t need to scream as much; there will always be people willing to buy. But in richer neighborhoods - and by richer I mean middle class neighborhoods because no one in the upper class bothers about these kinds of problems - it is an uphill task selling water there. Most people in these types of neighborhood only buy water when they have gone days or even weeks without power supply to pump water. Or, if the pumping machine for the boreholes are bad. 

Which was what happened to me last me last week.

I recently moved from a core ghetto to a slightly better neighborhood. The house was still getting some work done so there was barely any water in house. I knew I had to get a Mai Ruwa to supply me water until the problem was fixed. When I was in the ghetto, all I needed to do was walk out of my gate and find someone selling water. But in this new neighborhood, that wasn’t the case. Everyone in the neighborhood had their own boreholes and didn’t need the services of a Mai Ruwa. I had to walk a long distance to find out. By this time, I was already tired and sweating profusely. But I found one!

When I told him where we were going, he said each jerrycan cost 30. I told him I only wanted 7. He agreed and we set off for the long journey to my house.

Mai Ruwa pushing his truck down a hill. Unlike my Mai Ruwa, this seems much easier even though it is still a lot of work. 
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Now here is what I didn’t tell you. My house is atop a small hill and the entire road leading to the house is rugged, uneven and bumpy. Walking up the hill is a chore. Now imagine what pushing a truck with 300-litres of water means.

As the Mai Ruwa started climbing the hill, I knew it was going to be an uphill task. (You know I did that on purpose, right?). He pushed the truck in one direction and was shocked when the truck rolled back and nearly toppled over. He used all his strength to keep the truck aright and paused to assess the road. I could see the wheels of his mind working as he considered what path to take that would offer the least resistance. He took off his shoes and started again.

The truck kept swerving and the contents nearly spilling.

He had done this like five or seven times when I saw he was almost quitting. I knew I had to do something. If he quit, it meant I wouldn’t get any water. If I was to get water, I had to help out. So I offered. Again, I could see him contemplating. I can almost swear he was wondering what kind of help I could offer since I am a woman. But he was already sweating and puffing. You could tell that the work had taken a toll on him. And because I am sure he was fasting, it must have been even more stressful for him.

‘Okay. Let us do this.’ He said in Hausa.

So I joined him to pull the truck while he pushed. That was the hardest five minutes I have had in a very long time! I had barely pulled over the first rise of the hill when my armpit became a leaking faucet. My entire body was soon covered in sweat and I could hear my heart beating like it was about to explode. I thought it was because I wasn’t physically fit but the Mai Ruwa didn’t seem to be doing much better. When I thought my heart was finally going to explode and I couldn’t take no more, we finally got to my house. I directed the Mai Ruwa to the backyard and went into my living room to take one moment to still my heart. By this point, I was drenched in sweat, my arms and back hurt, my heart was coming off the pain and stamping my feet on the ground hurt like hell. I remembered the Mai Ruwa had taken off his shoes and imagine what was happening to his feet at that moment.  

What I looked like after helping the Mai Ruwa pull the truck up the hill.
Image: GIPHY
It was then that I realized what was right there in front of me all this time; every Mai Ruwa is a hero! Imagine pushing a truck through streets and up hills and doing this all day everyday. No wonder all the Mai Ruwa I have seen are all lean and have their muscles toned. This type of work will not allow you keep any extra calories.

When he was done turning the water, I paid him his money - 210 - and felt bad that he did all that work to earn so little. It felt almost…unfair. But he even makes more money than some of his colleagues. In most places, a jerrycan of water goes for 20. This means that for every truck of 14, the Mai Ruwa makes 280. He would have to sell approximately 71 trucks of water to be able to earn 20,000; which is around 2.5 trucks per day. You must note that this calculation is idealistic because he has to pay to fetch the water from the person with the borehole. He may not also be the owner of his truck so he may have to rent. So, to make 20,000 per month - which is around the minimum wage in Nigeria - he has to sell at least a hundred trucks of water.

This isn’t how anyone should live. This is why the government needs to get the basic necessities right. Instead of having someone push trucks of water, he could be working for a fully functional water board or running his own business. As a nation, we have to do better with the way things are done in this country. It is unfair to have citizens work so hard and earn so little when we have so many natural and human resources that we can catalyze to generate even more revenue and shoot the nation to a first world country.

My Mai Ruwa is an asset to the community. I can’t imagine what life would be like without easy access to water. But if our system worked, there are possibilities that he would be an even bigger asset to the community if he had a better job and more money for an education, a family and whatever else he so desires. It is on us to keep demanding that our governments and institutions work.

So if you know a Mai Ruwa or use one, take out time to appreciate them for the work they do. A word of encouragement, a little extra pay, and even simply asking about their lives would go a long way.

I am proud to know Sani from Kano. He is a true hero!