Water Delivery Man Has Fans In Parched Nairobi

A four-year drought has left millions of Kenyans thirsty. In the slums of the capital, Nairobi, taps have run dry — and the guy who trucks in water is now a neighborhood celebrity.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

(Soundbite of rainfall)

We're listening to a sound that's becoming increasingly rare in the East African nation of Kenya: rain.

Kenya's long rainy season is supposed to last roughly from March to the beginning of June. But for the fourth straight year, the rains have disappointed. The drizzle we're hearing isn't enough to stall a drought. So these days, some of the most popular folks in the neighborhoods of Nairobi are the men who deliver the water.

NPR's Gwen Thompkins has our story.

GWEN THOMPKINS: Here at a place called Dagoretti Corner, dozens of blue water trucks are parked like so many sea lions napping on a beach. They're parked in mud, and that's a good sign; it means they're dripping with water.

Dagoretti Corner is on the outskirts of Nairobi on the road that leads to the hills where Isak Denys' lover is buried, the man Robert Redford played in the movie "Out of Africa." But right now, nobody in Nairobi would give Redford a second glance, unless he was driving one of these trucks.

So by that logic, David Karanja could be the sexiest man alive. A year ago, he was a lowly accountant at a cell phone company here. In today's drought, he's positively irresistible as a water vendor. Karanja has more than 1,200 gallons of water for anyone willing to buy.

Mr. DAVID KARANJA (Water Vendor): You know, in every crisis, we believed that it offers an opportunity. So it is for you to be smart enough to get in.

THOMPKINS: Talk about turning a frown upside down. Karanja got downsized from his job last year and thought he'd like to be his own boss. So he invested in one of Kenya's only boom industries: the drought. Some neighborhoods haven't gotten water from the city line in six months.

Alice Robos(ph) says her spigot sputtered in May and went dry in July. So she buys every day from one of these Bowsers, and the daily wait can seem endless.

Ms. ALICE ROBOS: (Unintelligible) four hours waiting for water. Now, you see now we are waiting, waiting.

THOMPKINS: The water comes from boreholes in and around Nairobi. But sometimes Bowser drivers steal it from the city line. Sometimes it's clean, sometimes not. Some drivers are licensed to sell, other are not.

Twelve hundred gallons wholesale for about $20 and retail for no less than $50. Even with the overhead costs, it's a good trade. Karanja says he fills up his tank about four times a day. But Michael Jenga(ph) says he does twice that amount of business. He's scrappy.

Mr. MICHAEL JENGA (Water Vendor): You see, right now, I can tell my business is fairly good because everybody, they need the water. So like right now, we have a (unintelligible) in the Kasima.

THOMPKINS: Jenga is a 25-year-old mechanic who wears a U.S. Army Ranger shirt and green jeans. He says the drought won't last forever so he's planning for a rainy day, literally. The next rains in Kenya are due in October, and Jenga says he's making as much as he can now.

Mr. JENGA: Our demand is high. But it will become a time, our demand will be down. So this is our time to take what's belong to us.

THOMPKINS: Okay. This is not the most exciting of jobs. The water fills up the truck.

(Soundbite of machinery)

You drive to the client. You open the spigot. You turn on the water pump, and the water flows out of the truck. And then the whole process starts all over again.

(Soundbite of trucks)

But Jenga says he doesn't mind the repetition. By noon today, he's already filled his tank three times and he's got more appointments piling up. Never mind that the lettuce in Nairobi is browning. These are salad days in the water business.

Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Nairobi.

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