A Life Where the Well Is Miles Away

THE Gorgol region, 400 kilometers southwest of Nouakchott, is a semidesert. In the northern part of the region are the rare water sources, around which nomads and their flocks gather. There women work as they have for thousands of years, fetching water. Khajettu is one of them:

"I am a Haratin, a black Moor. Many years ago, we were the slaves of a white Moorish master. Today we are free, but my family still belongs to the clan of our masters, who help us a good deal.

"When I leave from our camp before the sun rises, no one needs to tell me. My family counts on me to bring what it needs to survive even one day. I am fortunate to live near a well that provides water year round, even when it is very hot. We have found forage for our flock about 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) from this well. There are women who must travel 10 kilometers, or even more, to draw water.

"I am 18 and my legs are sturdy. It takes me an hour to reach the well. The hardest part, though, is being forced to wait for the two donkeys that carry my four water cans.

"Once I have arrived at the well, the most difficult part begins. I know that the animals - cows, sheep, camels, even donkeys - go ahead of me, and must be served first. If large flocks have come to drink at the well, I have to wait all day. Anyway, I need help from the men. They lead the camels and donkeys who lift the dellus from the bottom of the well, and are strong enough to lift the dellus when they are full of water.

"The water that I bear provides drink for the poultry and goats, and water for preparing food. For bathing and laundry, it is necessary to go to the well two or three times a week.

"The rest of the water is for drinking, preparing tea, and for ritual washing. My father has always told me that if you are a good Muslim, and if you have enough water, you should take a ritual bath before saying the five prayers. If you don't have enough water, you can omit this.

"If the well water disappeared, or if the animals could no longer find forage, we would have to leave and search for water a little farther away. I am not yet married, and would follow my family and clan. In any event, married or not, I will continue to go after water until I am too old to be able to do it."

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