The Water People

Hi, my name is Adola Sani, and this is the story of how I became a Sanitary Engineer. That sounds a bit weird, doesn’t it? Well, my mom thinks it sounds kind of weird, but that must be because she wanted me to become a doctor.

But that was never my dream. I had a different calling in life. As far back as I can  recall, all I ever wanted to become was someone that does the same thing my father did. He was also an engineer, you see. And it all started the day my father told me the story of the Water People.

During my first years at school, I can clearly remember how every day after class, I would peek quietly into the trash so no one would catch me finding little treasures I could add to my engineering stash. And yes, before you say anything, I was obsessed with engineering, maybe a little too much. To be honest, I am still quite obsessed with my job, but as you will see, I have good reasons to be.

The treasures I collected consisted mainly of plastic bottles that I kept secretly in my room. I used to build all kinds of stuff with them, but mainly, I loved to build pipes. All I needed was a pair of scissors and some glue. I would cut them and stick them together, end to end, until I formed the perfect pipe. I did all of that so that I could fill the pipe with water. I just loved to watch the water rush away, bottle by bottle, until it reached the sink, disappearing forever. It was my favorite thing in the world.

And that is what awakened my curiosity more than anything. What happened to the water after it went down the sink? It was one of the biggest mysteries of my childhood. I was so curious; I needed to know what happened to the water. Did it go to the ocean? Or maybe the water just evaporated into clouds? My teacher had taught us about clouds, so I thought maybe that was what happened to the water.

But really, I was not sure of anything. The possibilities were endless, and I had a big imagination. The truth was yet to come, and it was even more extraordinary than what I had anticipated.

As I mentioned, I always knew I wanted to become like my father. Building pipes was one of the first clues, but it wasn’t the only thing that made me realize my path in life. I can remember how curious and excited I was to know everything about my dad’s job. He was my hero; he was big and strong, and he always wore a helmet to work. I remember how his face would look when he came home from work. There was something in the way he looked that always made me feel safe and protected.

During those years, as a little girl, I used to make my mom mad with my projects. She didn’t want me to become an engineer like my father, not at all. She used to get so mad when she found my makeshift pipes hidden under the bed, and she never really understood what my obsession with engineering was all about. But to be honest, I don’t fully understand it myself. You might not, either. But I hope to make you understand what it feels like to help people the way engineers like my father and I do. It is all quite magical, to be honest.

When I was a little girl, nothing would bring me more happiness than making my little pipes with the plastic bottles I found, except, of course, when my dad took me along with him to his job.

I probably only went with him twice, no more than three or four times, but I guarded those days in my memory as the happiest days of my childhood, especially the day he told me about the Water People. I can recall the sun warming us, a blue sky, busy people all around us working hard. You could tell that those people were building something of real value to the world. Years later, I learned that what they were building was one of the most important projects our city had ever started: a new, bigger, and improved sanitation system for the whole city.

That project my dad and his people built benefited more than two million people, and not just that, but generations to come would reap its benefits for a long time. I can’t even begin to tell you how proud I felt when I talked about this. My father was responsible for the wellbeing of thousands of families. He didn’t just make people’s lives easier, but he also made them live happier, healthier, and longer.

I’m not going to lie to you, if I had heard the word “sanitation” before my father explained it to me, it would’ve sounded weird to me, too. I would’ve thought it was something only men would do, but I would have been wrong. “Sanitation”, for me, meant cleaning up dirt. I know it is quite ironic, but that was how I perceived it. At first, it was difficult to appreciate what a sanitation expert really does, but luckily, I had my dad, and his story about the Water People made me appreciate what he did for a living a lot more.

I was probably eight or ten years old when I asked my father about his job. I entered his studio in our house without knocking, but it was all right, he didn’t mind. He had blueprints all over his desk and seemed busy, but he patiently waited for me to tell him what I wanted.

“Daddy, what is your job like?’ I asked him.

He immediately stopped what he was doing and stared blankly at me. To be honest, he seemed surprised to hear me ask that question. He probably had thought I had no interest his job, but he was greatly mistaken.

He sat me on his lap, and with a serious, yet warm voice, he started to tell me one of the greatest stories I had ever heard, the story of the noble and beautiful Water People.

“I work with the Water People,” he started the story.

“What? Daddy, don’t play with me,” I interrupted him and giggled. “Who are these Water People you are talking about?”

“Well, sweetheart,” he said, “the most important thing you need to know about the Water People is they are good and hardworking individuals. They are made 100% out of water, of course, and their city, too.”

They take pride in what they do, you know,” he continued, his voice getting quieter with every word he said. “They have a great responsibility. You should know, they are the ones that guarantee our wellbeing. The water you drink, the water with which mommy waters the plants in our garden, and the water we use to wash our hands, too, it is all controlled by the Water People.”

After that, he had my complete attention. Was he going to tell me what happens to the water after it went down the sink? Was I finally going to find out where the water actually came from? I got super excited and listened carefully to what he continued to tell me.

“Every day the water people wake up to go to work, they get dressed, they brush their teeth, and they comb their watery hair.”

I giggled with him after that, as he pretended to comb his own hair.

”They are quite elegant, you know. Anyway, after they get ready for work, they must commute to the Great Sink, their only transportations system to the human world. The Sink is as big as a seven-story building, located in the middle of a great plaza, all white and clean. It actually looks a lot like our bathroom. But much bigger.

“Every morning, they form these long lines to get to the Great Sink. But the waiting time is not too long, so don’t feel bad for them.

I suddenly realized I was getting quite thirsty, but I wanted to keep listening to my father’s story, so I said nothing.

“When it is a Water Person’s turn to go through the Great Sink,  they feel happy. It is their signal. ‘Time to work,’ they tell themselves, and happily jump into the Sink. The Sink takes them through a series of pipes, and I mean really long pipes. In some cases, the pipes can be as long as the country. But they swiftly move through the system, and that is how the Water People arrive in the world of humans.”

By that point, all I could think about was my own plastic bottles and the pipes I made with them. I started to laugh as I imagined the tiny Water People going through my pipes as if it were a roller coaster. But my dad didn’t know what I was laughing about. Those pipes were my own little secret.

“Sometimes, it can take the Water People days, or even weeks, to get to our world,” he continued. “But they tell themselves, ‘The journey is always worth it, as long as we get to do our work well.’ Like I told you, they are proud people, and they love what they do.”

At that moment, I felt the urge to tell my dad how much I love what he did for a living, even if I didn’t know what it was, exactly. I kept quiet because I wanted to keep listening to the story. I wanted to hear more about these Water People, and what they did. And also, since I was getting even more thirsty, I decided to save my words.

“When they finally arrive in our world is when the magic happens. Here, the Water People want to live in harmony with us. We need them just as much as they need us, because the truth is, without the Water People, us humans would be completely lost. We wouldn’t even last a week without them.

“They help us in everything we do, he explained. “You should know that. They make us clean, they hydrate us, they give water to the plants so the plants can feed us and the animals, too. Water People are truly amazing, sweetheart.”

He paused to pick  a cup up from the desk, which I hadn’t noticed until then, and he drank the water so fast that by the time I thought to him for a sip, he had already finished the whole glass. And that really got me thirsty. But I didn’t say anything.

“But also,” he continued as if nothing had happened, “the Water People don’t ask for much. They only ask for one thing in return. They want us to stop contaminating them. You see, when humans don’t treat them right, the Water People may get sick, and as a consequence, they could get their fellow Water People sick, and they could get us sick as well.” His voice got a little more serious. “That is why we shouldn’t contaminate the water. But my dearest Adola, believe it or not, humans still get the Water People sick from time to time.”

“Oh no!” was all I was able to say.

“But don’t worry, sweetheart, this is where I enter the scene,” he told me as his eyes got bright and shiny with excitement, and I couldn’t help but feel extremely curious about what he had to say.

“I forgot to tell you, but, you see, the Water People are ruled by a kind king, The Water King, the noblest and gentlest person you can imagine. He cares about his people, too. All he ever wants is for his people to live happy lives. So, one can understand that he got upset after he found out his people kept getting sick while visiting our city.”

“But Daddy,” I decided to ask him, “What exactly happened to the Water People, why did they keep getting sick?’ My face must have made him feel something inside because he responded hastily.

“Sometimes, we humans forget that even though the Water People work for us, but we have to be gentle and kind to them, too. We need to learn to appreciate the Water People just as much as they appreciate us, darling.”

And do you do something to help them?” I asked him.

“Exactly, that is my job. I help them in a lot of ways. It’s kind of complicated, but let’s just say that thanks to the help of the Water King, we can understand the needs of the water people.”

I needed more answers.

“But Daddy, how exactly do you help them?”

“Well, sweetheart, for starters, we are building a hotel for the Water People, here in the city, too. Yes, yes, a hotel,” he clarified after seeing the surprise on my face. “You see, sometimes the water people need to stay longer than just a day in our city, so we build these huge hotels for them. Thousands and thousands of them stay in our hotels every day.”

“And what do they do in these hotels, Daddy?” I asked him.

“Well, darling, they need to get some rest. Sometimes they need to get clean before entering our houses, so we clean them.”

I was confused by then, but I didn’t care, I was so curious. And also, I needed to ask him the question that had piqued my curiosity in the first place.

“Daddy, what happens to them after they disappear through the sink?”

I’m glad you asked, sweetie,” he told me, “because actually, that is where the second part of my job begins. You see, the Water King doesn’t want their people to go back to the Water City dirty and contaminated after they work in our human world.”

“Why not?” I interrupted him.

‘Because if a sick Water Person goes to the Water City, they could get the rest of the Water People sick too. The Water King told us we need to clean his Water People before we send them back to their Water homes.”

“Oh, Daddy, that is so interesting! You have no idea how much I loved your story. But you know what?” I told him, “All this talking about water got me really, really, really, thirsty. Let’s stop here and go drink some Water People in the kitchen.”

We both laughed a lot that afternoon.

My dream of becoming a Sanitary Engineer, my lifelong dream, came to be not without difficulty. Let me tell you the truth, there were plenty of obstacles along the way. I had to work hard in the university to get my degrees, and my mother never approved of my choices. She thought the job was too manly for me; she was wrong on that one. But over time, she has come to understand that the number of people I can help by doing my job is larger than if I had chosen any other profession. I know that she is very proud of me now.

It wasn’t easy, but it was 100% worth it.

Now, let me tell you about the conversation I had with my father the day I told him I wanted to become just like him.

I was about to finish my last year of senior secondary school. I have always had excellent grades, so I knew passing SSCE and JAMB, and getting admission wasn’t going to be a problem. What really had me nervous was the idea of telling my father about my decision.

It was one Saturday morning, and as usual, he was in his studio. When he saw me come in, he immediately stopped what he was doing and waited for me to talk, as if somehow, he knew I wanted to tell him something important.

“I want to talk to you about my education, Dad,” I finally told him.

“Well then, sit, and tell me,” he said, pointing to the chair next to him with that smile of his.

“I’ve decided what I want to study in the university,” I told him. “And well, I’ve decided I want to become an engineer. Well actually, I want to be a Sanitary Engineer, just like you, Dad.”

All that was left to do was wait for his response, but he just looked at me without any expression on his face. He was quiet. And before answering me, he looked out the window like he was thinking about something else.

“I knew I should never have told you the story of the Water People,” he finally said” Laughing, he asked me, “You know they aren’t real, right?”

We both laughed a lot. Honestly, that was the best reaction I could have asked for. That same day I admitted to him that I had always wanted to become just like him, ever since I was a little girl. I told him about my plastic bottles and the pipes I made. We both kept laughing. I believe that that day, my father was truly proud of me.

Just before we ended our conversation, he gave me a warning and some advice. He told me, “The road is not going to be easy, but it is going to be totally worth it.”

He was 100% right about both.

“But listen, Adola,” he said with his serious voice, “the person who has a strong “Why” can withstand any “How”. So just do whatever makes you want to give it your all. Try to help as many people as possible, and you will live a happy life.”

That was the best piece of advice my father, or anybody, had ever given me, and I thank him for that every single day.

I am a little ashamed to admit it, but it took me until senior secondary school to finally find out where the water we use actually comes from, and what happens to the water after it disappears into the sink. And as it turns out, there are no Water People, that we know of at least.

It took me even longer to finally become an expert in the field. Nowadays, I am the head of engineering of one of the biggest sanitation programmes in the country. And let me tell you, once you understand the process, you realize that the true story of sanitation is not less magical than the story my father told me.

Let me assure you, even after all these years, all the hard work I’ve put into my studies and degrees, and all my job experience, the one thing that never leaves my mind is the story of the Water People, and how passionate my father was when he told it to me. I know it may sound childish to some of you, but for me, it is something much more important than a simple story. It made me realize that the reason I wanted to become like my father was so that I could help as many people as he did.

These days all I do is smile and fill my chest with pride when I tell people what I do. I followed my father’s path, and this new project I’m about to start is not dissimilar to the one my father finished so many years ago.

He, and the brave people he worked with, helped build a better society. Happier and healthier families are his legacy. More than two million people, and thousands of families,  have a better life thanks to my father and his co-workers, but they don’t even know his name. And that is okay.

My sanitation project will benefit more than five million people. Fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, babies, brothers, and sisters will reap the benefits of our hard work for generations to come.

But they will not know my name, and that is okay. I don’t do what I do for the recognition, I do it because helping people is what I love to do.

Now, let me finish my story the same way I started it.

My name is Adola Sani, and I am a Sanitary Engineer. It doesn’t sound so weird now, does it?