My family and I visited Guinea-Bissau – our home country – for the long holidays on most years. We would spend three weeks in the family home that, at the time, was really more of a bachelor pad, reconnecting with everything that we had left behind.
In those days there was rarely any electricity in Bissau, the capital city, save for a few hours in the evening – in some neighbourhoods today that remains the case – but I didn’t mind. I was too young to have any of my own devices and therefore had nothing to charge, and I wanted to catch up with the friends that I would have otherwise grown up with, had we returned after the war.
My younger brother and I would spend daylight hours running around in the characteristic dust roads of the country, and return only at dinner time sweaty and ashy, and mentally preparing for the cold bucket baths that we were to have, before sitting at the dinner table. Not much else was an inconvenience back then. Besides, it was always temporary; I was always going to return to places where I didn’t feel the effects of scarcity.
As I got older, the power cuts became more inconvenient – how else was I supposed to maintain my friendships over a whole summer without the internet or even a charged phone battery? I had made my peace with the bucket showers, though I couldn’t quite get used to the urgency of refilling every available vessel in those unpredictable few moments, when water would spill out of the taps.
Now, at 24, I have been living back home for a year now. The electricity issue is not as pronounced in my neighbourhood anymore. But as for the water issues, it mostly remains the same except that now (at least on most days) we can predict the times when we will be able to refill every tank, bucket, and empty bottle in the house. I acclimated because I knew not to expect more from a state that has been unable (or unwilling) to address the issue for over 20 years.
There are two stories that could be told here. The first about our access to resources, or the lack thereof, and how it is a form of state violence that Bissau-Guineans have had to endure for longer than I can remember. The second is about individual consumption and waste, and what living in conditions of scarcity teaches us about both. This piece is about the latter.
Industrialisation and rising income generally come with a rise in material consumption per household and therefore waste generation. In recent years, as public consciousness on environmentalism has risen, there has been an effort to adapt household behaviour across the global north to promote sustainable consumption and production patterns, including water saving incentives in places like Australia.
Most households in Guinea-Bissau outside of the capital use wells or boreholes and rivers. In Bissau, the effects of drought during the hotter seasons are not as evident as they are in the rural regions. Still, on some days, and sometimes several in a row, because of inefficient water management by the principal supplier in the country, we have to make use of the reserves that we have and make sure that we are able to stretch it over that period.
According to WaterWise, a not-for-profit UK NGO that aims to reduce water consumption in the country, the average showerhead uses 12 litres of water a minute, and considering that the average shower lasts 10 minutes, about 120 litres of water is consumed per shower and if power showers are used, the number rises to about 150 litres.
Since returning to Guinea-Bissau, I use a 15-litre bucket for my showers, doubling the dose only on days that I wash my hair. It has not always been this way, though; when I was younger, though my body was smaller, I could not fathom using a single bucket to scrub off a day’s worth of grime and I would use one and a half buckets to shower every day. I have since learned that most of the water that I used was excess. With the correct technique – yes there is a wrong way to bucket bathe – I was able to reduce my usage considerably. Furthermore, with the mostly cold showers that I have been taking (in the colder seasons, I still boil a quarter of my shower water), I have no desire to remain there beyond the 5 minutes that it actually takes to get myself clean.
For most Guineans, drinking water (very few people drink bottled water), sanitation water, and irrigation water come from the same place and most exist under conditions of scarcity. So, they have learned to use what they need because they are often forced to use less than what they need.
In general, and mostly because of access issues, my individual consumption of energy and even clothing has dropped considerably since I left the UK. Bissau does not have the same retail or delivery services that I had available to me when I lived in Birmingham, nor does it always have electricity or water at the flick of my wrist. Limited access, compounded with the effect that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on our environmental awareness and social responsibility, I have become more intentional about consuming more sustainably because, despite my relative comfort, I know what it is like to run out of water and be unable to do the things I would have taken for granted otherwise.
Sometimes though, I still catch myself opening the tap and expecting water to pour out on demand.