The screeching of wood pulleys welcomed them from afar. As they approached the well, they saw three donkeys attached together, pulling ropes of interminable length on one side, while four others pulled together opposite them, heaving up large rubber water containers from 130 meters into the earth. Even ten donkeys on either end would not have sufficed to make the job less strenuous. One donkey tripped from exhaustion, bringing down the others with it. As the girls approached, they noticed a donkey lying almost lifeless on the ground near the well. They knew that the animal would be dead by the end of the day. It was often this way during the dry season.
Mouheini went up to one of the men to ask if they could fill up their jerry cans, pointing to her cousins and their donkeys. The man glanced over and shook his head. “You will have to wait a while,” he said. “Many people and animals are already waiting, and there is hardly any water seeping through at the bottom of the well. Right now, we are only bringing up mud. We’ll be sending in a boy soon to dig the well deeper. Maybe there’ll be water afterward, Allah willing.” Mouheini informed Takat and Raichatou. “This means we’re going to be stuck here several hours!” Raichatou exclaimed, “maybe we should walk ahead to the next well?”
“There is no guarantee there’ll be water there either,” replied Mouheini. After considering their options, the girls decided to wait rather than look for another well. Takat found a shady spot beneath an acacia tree, where an elderly woman sat weaving a mat while she waited. After laying out their own mat, the girls distracted themselves by playing mancala and other traditional games with rocks in the sand.
They waited for hours, as more and more people and animals showed up at the well, hopeful to retrieve water. “I’m not so sure we made the right decision to stay,” Raichatou opined. “We’d still be walking if we had gone,” replied Takat. Mouheini, trying to keep the peace, reassured them, “It will be our turn soon.”
Just at that moment, Mouheini looked up to see a woman walk by, hiding herself behind a mat. The old woman also observed the lady with her mat and shook her head in disgust. She whispered to the girls: “This water problem is the root of all evil these days. Men are leaving our land to find jobs elsewhere, and when they return, they bring back crazy ideas. A woman hiding herself so that men do not see her?! Tuareg women used to show themselves proudly, and now they cower behind mats and veils. They say it is for Allah. It’s just silliness if you ask me. Those men are trying to keep their wives to themselves as if a mat is going to stop a woman from finding another man!”
The old woman went back to her weaving. The girls looked at one another, not quite knowing what to think. The two younger ones giggled. Mouheini did not. Would Abdoul also insist that she covers herself with a mat whenever she was not among family members? She did not want to find out. She did not want to leave her parents and siblings to live with Abdoul’s family. Thinking of her brothers and sisters brought her back to reality, to her water quest. She direly hoped they were okay, and that Tahir still had water to drink.
“I’m so thirsty,” lamented Raichatou, “and hungry, too.” Wanting to see if they would be able to get their water soon, and hoping to distract her cousin from discouragement, Mouheini proposed, “Let’s find some water to drink.” Not far from the well sat a corroded aluminum trough from which a few cows drank muddy filth lying at the bottom. The girls scooped as much of the liquid as they could into their hands to assuage their thirst.