The Underground Lake

Chapter 1

Every morning in Angwa Malami, Niger State, Aisha Abubakar would get on her way to the Guinea corn field by the crack of dawn.

“Here we go again,” she recited in her head, as she listlessly made her way through the trails. “Why did Father have to farm Guinea corn?” she questioned the universe, as she’s done for the last several months.

Aisha quietly made her way to the flimsy wooden shed by their house to retrieve one of the plastic water containers. For years, even long before Aisha was born, the inhabitants of the village could fetch water from the three village wells. Since she was about eight or nine, Aisha was taught to fetch water from the wells and bring it to the communal Guinea corn field in the village center. But those wells have run dry. Believe it or not, it had not rained in the village for the last ten months.

“Hello!” Hafsat Ismaila called after Aisha, breaking the latter out of her daze. “Are you on your way to the Lake? Have you seen Ummi yet?” she asked.

Hafsat and Aisha had been the best of friends practically since they were born. The Abubakar’s and Ismaila’s had been neighbors for years, in this small village of Angwa Malami. They were close like family – which is not hard, as the village had a very small population even back in the day. Angwa Malami used to have about 50 families, but sadly, far fewer were left now. There were less than 30 families left after a mass emigration of families because of the mysterious drought that had befallen their village three years ago. If it weren’t for underground lake that was kilometres away from Angwa Malami, the village might have long been completely deserted.

Aisha’s and Hafsat’s grandparents and all the elders of their generation always talked of a subterranean cave that was known to hold water. When the village wells ran dry, it was their friend Ummi Hamisu’s older brothers who set about in search of this life-saving lake… and found it in a hidden cave eight kilometers from the outskirts of the village. The entrance to the secluded cave lay in a deep fissure on the earth’s surface. The Hamisu brothers had to carefully make their way through steep, narrow, and rocky pathways just to make it to the lake deep inside the cave.

With the guidance of the Hamisu brothers, the struggling families of Angwa Malami finally had a source for much-needed water. The lake lay more than 50 meters below the ground, deep into the cave. Nevertheless, the lake was their only hope and chance for survival during droughts.

The first time they found the subterranean lake, the Hamisu brothers had only their hands and feet to help them navigate through dangerous rocky fissure. Soon, the men of Angwa Malami came together and built makeshift wooden ladders for the most difficult passages, just to get to the heart of the cave.

Hafsat was always cheerful and bright, never complaining despite having to drag a 13-liter water container every single day. Same as yesterday (and the day before that, and the day before that…), Hafsat was carrying her water canister early in the morning as the two of them met at the road bend. The only difference between the two girls was that Aisha was her usual somber self while Hafsat had on her ready smile.

“You are definitely NOT a morning person, Aisha. But I still love you, don’t worry!” Hafsat would always tease Aisha. “Come on, let’s get Ummi and all go to the lake together!”

Aisha had always envied her best friend Hafsat’s happy disposition, yet could not  seem to look past the hardships of rural life.

Chapter 2

“Ummi! Aisha! Let’s go! Let’s get a head start on our day so we can still hang out by the wells once we’re done in the Guinea corn fields,” Hafsat excitedly called out.

The two girls were right outside Ummi’s house. The three friends were inseparable. With the few people left in Angwa Malami, only Aisha, Hafsat, and Ummi were of this delicate age on the verge of teen-hood. They were still children, but not for long. It was, in fact, Ummi’s 13th birthday.

“I’m here, I’m here,” Ummi answered dryly as she dragged her feet out of their house, her own water canister in hand.

“Happy birthday, Ummi! Wow, that’s quite a canister you have there! Is that new?” Aisha asked.

Children and young adults were all given 10 to 20-liter water canisters to fetch water from the lake every day. Fetching water has been the way of life for all able-bodied citizens of Angwa Malami. But today, Ummi seemed to have gotten a new water container to carry water with.

“I turn 13 today. mother said I am almost a woman. I may not be strong enough to carry a 20-liter canister yet, but I have to start training for when the day comes. I believe this is 15 liters now,” Ummi shared. “Also, beginning today, I have to make two trips to the lake. Mother needs water for the home, as well,” Ummi told her two friends. “A happy birthday to me, indeed.”

Ever since the rains stopped falling 10 months ago and the wells dried up shortly after, life had been doubly (even triply!) hard. Harvests fail, sometimes. There was barely any water to drink, much less to do any irrigation.

Ummi’s mother was just like any mother in the village: she needed to maximise the use whatever little water there was as much as she could. She would wash herself with leftover water used for cooking, after most of the leftover water had been given to cattle or sheep to drink. To save water is to save a life. Or lives.

Chapter 3

The three youngsters walked the eight kilometer distance to the hidden cave. They had done this almost a hundred times by now, so they were used to it.

“I bet you I can find my way to the lake with my eyes closed!” Ummi joked.

“So can I! Would you like to race?” Hafsat asked Ummi, her eyes twinkling with excitement.

“Stop it, you two!” an exasperated Aisha interrupted. “What you’re thinking of doing is crazy and unladylike! Besides being dangerous, especially once you reach the mouth of the hidden cave, it’s impossible to make your way down the wooden ladders and through the rocks in a hurried race. I mean, it’s dangerous enough when you’re being carefully slow…” Aisha finished off with a roll of her eyes.

“Aww… lighten up, Aisha,” Ummi chided her with a smile. “We’re just trying to make our daily trips a little more bearable.”

Hafsat chimed in, “Ummi’s right, Aisha. If we don’t do what we can to make these long road trips to the lake fun, we would just hate it.”

“That’s the thing, Ummi, Hafsat. Maybe we should hate it. Maybe we should not learn to love this kind of life. Who would love a life where we need to carry more than 10 liters of water on our heads every day? And we are children! Our fathers carry double this weight, just to toil in the Guinea corn field after. Our mothers need to filter and boil the water just to make it safe for us to drink. None of us take a proper bath, for fear of using even a drop more than is necessary!

“I heard Mother and Father talking last night. Do you know that in Minna, every house has a toilet? No one needs to go and do their private business in an open field. A toilet for each house! Do you know of any house here that has that?

“And they say water in Minna comes to every house through things called pipes and faucets. Have you ever seen one of those things before? No one has to travel eight kilometers far and down dark, rocky paths, and back again just to be able to cleanse themselves a little.

“Imagine your mother, Ummi. Not having to boil water anymore. And your mother, Hafsat, being able to cook more delicious food because she has plenty of clean water in her kitchen.

“I bet the children in Minna all go to school and learn to read and write and learn about things we’ve never even heard of here. They can go to school because, unlike us, they do not need to use their time walking miles and miles just to carry heavy water on their heads.

“And I bet it rains plenty over there!

“Do you know how far we are from Minna? Just about 36 kilometers! We all travel 16 kilometers in total making our way to and back from the lake every day. That means we can make it to the capital in one day!”

Aisha’s spirited discourse silenced both Hafsat and Ummi. Aisha felt a slight pinch of guilt for bringing down her good friends’ high spirits. But no… someone had to say it.

Chapter 4

“Slowly, Ummi! We are in no hurry,” Hafsat reminded her tomboy friend who customarily would go down into the cave’s mouth ahead of all the girls. The narrow rocky path leading down the cave and toward the lake was arduous and covered in pitch black darkness. If one didn’t carry a torch, they would be unable to see their own hand if they put it in front of them. It was Ummi’s duty to hold the torch, go ahead, and be the girls’ guide through the passageways with makeshift wooden ladders. The lake lay some 50 feet below the ground, which was why climbing down the steep and small passages took several minutes.

“Don’t worry about me, Hafsat! Just hold on tight. I can’t have either of you slipping and falling down on me now, can I?” Ummi retorted with a giggle.

“We’ve climbed up and down these wooden ladders maybe close to a hundred times by now. We should know these steps like the back of our own hands,” Aisha began. “I think the secret is never to get too comfortable or so confident that you go through it hurriedly.”

“Yes, I agree. That’s why every time we pass through here, I pretend that it’s my first time to do so,” Hafsat agreed. “Do you think there will ever be a last time for us to come here? I mean, do any of you think the time will come when none of us has to come here just to fetch water anymore?” Hafsat thought out loud.

“Yes. When rains come. Or when someone figures out how to bring water to Angwa Malami,” Aisha answered with a scoff. There was a touch of scorn in Aisha’s voice as she realized the irony of Angwa Malami’s strange situation.

The three friends often made their way down the cave and to the lake with thoughtful conversations. “I wonder why it stopped raining over here. Do any of you know why?” Ummi asked. She sincerely wanted to know.

“My grandmother would always say that drought is a sign that a person or a place is cursed,” Aisha recounted. “Like a spell has been cast until the wretched is able to do something to reverse the curse.”

“Do you think that’s true?” Hafsat inquired. “Why would anyone curse Angwa Malami or anybody who lived here?” she thought quietly to herself.

“No,” Aisha promptly answered back. “I believe there is a more logical explanation to this drought rather than a vengeful spell of some sort. We just don’t quite understand everything that is happening because we don’t have adequate education in these parts. I like to think that we just need help. Either help comes from the big cities, or we help ourselves,” Aisha ended with conviction.

“Well, coming here every day and getting water so our fathers can nourish the plants in the fields and our families can have something to drink is helping ourselves, don’t you think?” Ummi asked Aisha.

“Yes, but this is not enough. I feel like there is a lot to be learned so we can all finally improve this kind of life that we have in Angwa Malami. This – our way of life – is not the only way, you know,” Aisha explained.

The three friends finally reached the lake and begin ladling precious water into their respective canisters.

“I wish I was bigger and stronger so I could easily carry 20 – no, 30 – liters of water at once. That way I wouldn’t need to come here more than twice in one day,” Ummi wished, her voice laced with a tinge of sadness.

“I wish water was less heavy!” Hafsat joked.

“Well, if we’re wishing for things, shouldn’t we wish for rains? Or for education for the people of Angwa Malami?” Aisha argued. Just as quickly as the words came out of her mouth, she regretted it. “I am such a killjoy,” Aisha admonished herself.

Well, someone’s got to say it.

Chapter 5

If making one’s way down the hidden cave was long, arduous, and frightening, imagine going up the same way carrying more than a 10-liter water container on one’s head and supporting it with one hand. And, either way, you pray that no one else is making their way up or down against your direction. Else, one of you will need to go back and give way. These three children knew that, being young, they would always have to be the ones to give way to elders.

It took more than an hour to walk the eight kilometers going to the lake and even longer to walk back, not counting the time it took to navigate the steep and stony paths going down the narrow cave, ladling water into containers, and carrying them back up to level land.

This was why Aisha, Hafsat, Ummi, and everyone else who made this water-fetching trip knew to set aside at least five hours of every day just for the purpose of fetching water.

“You two go on ahead to the Guinea corn fields. I will take my first container home to Mother and then make my way back to the lake so I can fetch water for the fields. I can meet you by the wells later,” Ummi told her friends.

Ummi split with the girls on the road bend and made her way home where her mother, two older brothers, and baby sister would be waiting for him.

“You are coming back just now? You walk way too slow, Ummi. Your brothers would have made two trips to and back from the lake in the time you take to make just one trip!” their mother scolded Ummi. “Today is not the day to be sluggish!”

“Forgive me, Mother. It is my first time to carry a 15-liter canister. I might need some time to get used to the weight,” Ummi meekly explained.

In truth, Ummi was feeling a little pained inside. “It’s my birthday, MY BIRTHDAY!” she told herself sadly. “And still, all I am is a pair of hands that should do heavy lifting. I am so much more than just a set of hands!”

Ummi promptly stopped herself from going further down this road of self-pity. Today was the first time in a long, long while that Ummi had allowed herself down this emotional path, knowing that to do so was somewhat of a guilty pleasure. The path of pitying oneself is a slippery slope. “I might never get back.”

As Ummi poured the lake water into their repository, she was secretly admonishing herself. “There are no birthdays in this land that rain has forgotten. We need water, not tears of sorrow – we cannot drink THAT.

“I wonder – are there birthdays in Minna? Maybe the kids there have plenty of friends who all bring gifts when it’s someone’s birthday. In school! They would also celebrate in school, as well as the home. What those children must know! I probably know less than half of what they have all learned in school.

“Perhaps the children in Minna do not need to get water from so far away. They all know where to get water and know how to make it safe for drinking and bathing. They must know what it’s like to bathe more than once a day.”

Today, Ummi’s thoughts did not go far down the path of self-pity, yet she allowed them toward a different direction. For the first time, Ummi allowed herself to think like Aisha would. And doing so seemed to send an unfamiliar energy – something like a lightning current – through her veins. Wow.

“Are you done yet? That water is not going to be enough for my cooking!” Ummi’s mother called out.

“Yes, Mother, I am done. I am leaving for the lake again right now,” Ummi answered sadly, weakly… yet, with a strange determination coursing through her body. “I need to make the trip. I need it.”

And in just moments, Ummi had left.

Chapter 6

“Shouldn’t Ummi be here by now?”

Hafsat and Aisha had finished their water-fetching duties and gone to the wells to see who else was there. This was where the three friends would always hang out as their days wound down. Here, they talked about their families and their secrets, and these wells were where they shaped their dreams. Dry as they may be, these wells symbolized hope that someday they would be filled again.

“What could be taking Ummi so long?” wondered Hafsat. “I know she needs to make that second trip to the lake, but that was hours ago. She should have made her way back by now.”

Dusk had started to settle over Angwa Malami. Ummi was taking unusually long in making her way back from the lake and finding her two friends by the wells as they customarily did. Aisha and Hafsat had been here for hours, both excited to give Ummi their birthday present to her – a wicker basket that Ummi could put on her back like a knapsack to carry things. Aisha and Hafsat had weaved this handmade basket together as a gift to their friend. But more time passed, and still Ummi had not returned.

Finally, Aisha spoke. “Hafsat. I can’t explain it. But I have a strange feeling. I don’t think Ummi is coming back. Today. Or for a long time. I think Ummi traveled the extra 20 kilometers to Minna.”