Yesterday i posted a Facebook status by my sister-in-law Shana who was celebrating the fact that she had managed to combine a shower, hair wash and condition, teeth wash and leg shave all just using 5l of water. She did get some pushback as a number of people commented about how that has been their normal for as long as they can remember. And to her credit, she listened and really heard and this is her response:

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A few days ago I took on a personal challenge to wash, shave, brush teeth, and wash and condition my hair in 5L, while catching all the water to use to flush the toilet. I did it, and I was proud of myself. Not for any other reason than because this meant I could save even more water in the current drought. I posted this on my personal wall, and on a water shedding group, to encourage others to do the same. Well, it escalated.

As people began to engage the conversation became less about the 5L Challenge and more about the fact that thousands upon thousands of people in our city, and throughout South Africa, have been bathing like this their whole lives. There became a clear divide of two groups:

1. The privileged – anyone who hasn’t grown up bathing in this way, and who has running water, in a bathroom, in a house.
2. The non-privileged – anyone who didn’t see this as a new idea and have grown up bathing in this way (often with less than 5L), who share communal ablutions and do not have access to running water and adequate sanitation.

Me? I’m in the privileged camp.

The conversation around inequality in this country is complicated, complex, messy, challenging, and hurtful to many, and there’s no way that one Facebook post can do any justice to covering this. But here are some of the things that challenged me, as someone who fits into the privileged camp.

1. I need to recognise and name my privilege – There is no way forward unless I actually recognise that I’m in the privileged group. And I think this might be something I need to realise regularly. It’s not a light switch that comes on once. It’s something that I need to be aware of, name and take responsibility for.

2. My privilege blinds me to reality – When I did this and put the challenge out on social media, I didn’t even think about the thousands who live like this every day. It took comments from those who have lived like this for me to realise just how privileged I am, and the stark contrast of that next to to thousands who don’t have that privilege.

3. I don’t hear enough – I might get the listening thing right from time to time, but do I actually HEAR? Do I really hear the hurt, difficulty, struggle and reality of others? I don’t think I always do. I need to make an effort to speak less, listen regularly and hear more. The stage might be mine by default, but just because I’ve been given it doesn’t mean I should take it. I need to step down and give others the stage, so that they can be heard by more of us.

4. I am ignorant – I had to Google search some statistics around water and sanitation in our City, before I could even start to realise the magnitude of the situation. Did you know that the “City of Cape Town’s informal settlements are the best serviced of all South African metros, as confirmed by the 2011 census.” That sounds good, until you hear their next statement:

“However, we have set our own higher target of at least:
– one shared toilet to maximum of five households; and
– one tap to 25 households and within a maximum walking distance of 200 metres.”

Do I GET that? Our informal settlements are the best off in our country and THAT is the government’s goal. Can I actually even begin to understand what this means?

5. I need to learn – I need to educate myself. The only way out of ignorance is to learn, and I have a heck of a lot to learn.

6. I need to do more – Yes, bathing in 5L of water is great to save water, but that isn’t the real challenge here. The challenge for me is to evaluate, brutally honestly, what I’m doing about actively undoing the inequality in my city, and to step out and start doing more. Not like a nice post on social media, but daily. How am I fighting against injustice? And where can I fight more?

If you read my 5L Challenge post and you thought “how is this chick only learning this now? We’ve been doing this for years”, then I’d like to say I’m deeply sorry if my blindness to my privilege was hurtful and offensive.

If you read my 5L Challenge post and thought “I need to try this”, then I’d like to say you’re in the privileged camp with me. I’d like to encourage you to take up the bigger challenge of joining me in recognising that, and start looking for ways to undo injustice, inequality and oppression every day.

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[i shared something similar earlier taking the same conversations into account, to read more, click here]

[For some thoughts from my friend K-T & her family of 4 on how they are reducing water usage, click here]