The story of Rakiya, the sanitary inspector

She woke up confident that day. The sun was shining, but her dog, Cookie, was barking in a strange manner. Rakiya looked cautiously into the courtyard. There was a man standing in front of the door. He wore a black hat and a blue suit and, in his hands, he had a dark green suitcase.

Rakiya opened the door and looked at the man. He raised his hat and said in a nice tone,

“Hello, Rakiya. I am Mr Abdulaziz. Usually we do not come to the doors of our future students, but this is a special situation. You probably do not know what this is all about. Do you remember what you were told when you applied to our university? That if you were accepted on short notice, we will bring you the letter of admission and you should sign for receiving it. After that, you will have one day to prepare for the admission interview. Do you remember in what sector you applied?”

“Yes, Mr Abdulaziz.,” Rakiya replied. “I applied to the Water sector, in the speciality of sanitary inspector. May I check the letter?”

“Here you are. Please sign on the back of this paper and feel free to open the letter.”

But be careful. Inside of that envelope there is a code that will allow you to enter the interview.”

Rakiya opened the letter and started to read it. It announced that she was admitted to the interview and that it would take place on February the 9th, 2020. She felt uncomfortable with the date. The 9th of February was also her birthday.

Would she renounce at her birthday for her dream? She wanted to have a party. She had already invited her friends, her family, and her neighbours. The venue was already chosen: a little house in a park that the owners rented out for big parties. It was her 18th birthday, an age of great, important, and sometimes of definitive decisions.

And what about the fulfilment of her dream? What was her dream? She had friends that wanted to become teachers; others wanted to become policemen or executive assistants. But Rakiya wanted to become a sanitary inspector. She knew she had to have good marks, so beginning in her 10th year in school she started to study harder than before. When she was 15, she also started working for a sanitary inspector with her friends Marjorie and Jane, helping him with his papers and answering the phone to gain experience in the field. They considered themselves to be a team and had gained many more responsibilities, like going out on cases, over the years.


But what could she do with the interview and with the party? They both were scheduled for the 9th of February, an impossible situation. She felt the need to call her best friend Nura to tell her all that happened that day and to ask her opinion.

“Hello, Nura. Do you remember the career path that I have wanted to go into since I was little? I got the letter of admission from the university and they say that I qualify for the interview, but, you know, the interview is tomorrow, the 9th of February, the day of my birthday party. What should I do? What would you do if you were me?”

At the other end of the line the silence was a bit longer than one would expect, but finally Nura answered:

“Yes, I remember what you told me. I don’t know what to say. I know that your parents have already paid for the party and that the next date that the place is available is the 9th of March. You have to think carefully about what is more important. You have invited all your friends, and your boyfriend Jake is expected to come, too. You have to skip the interview. You could become a good teacher, or a writer, or something else.”

Rakiya wondered if Nura was jealous and that was the reason she gave her this advice. But she kept this to herself.

“But Nura, I will lose the place at the University! They won’t keep a seat with my name on it. I have to skip my birthday party!”         Nura changed her tune to agree with her friend.

“You have wanted to become a sanitary inspector since you were in kindergarten. You always wanted to oversee public hygiene and health! That is why you have a team now and that is also why you tried to get good marks, and you have succeeded. So, go for the interview!”

“It’s my dream to become an important person, a person that others respect and appreciate. I know that sanitary health inspectors play a crucial role in the protection of public health and the environment, and I want that role to be mine! I’ve learned that a state’s civic bodies, if I can call them that, depend on health and sanitary inspectors to deal with public issues that range from the safety of drinking water and the safety of food to general sanitary conditions. It’s just so important.”

I mean, do you remember when that girl drank contaminated water from a friend’s house and got ill? She had to see the doctor and take some pills that tasted so bad that even your dog would not have eaten them. The girl’s friend could not be blamed, since the next day the girl’s family asked a sanitary inspector to come and see what was wrong with the water. The inspector came and analysed the drinking water from the entire neighbourhood, and he discovered that somewhere in the pipes some rats had died and contaminated the water.

My dear Nura…I have decided. My birthday party won’t take place. End of story! I really want to be the good guy, the sanitary inspector that saves the day. It is very important for me. This semester, I have started to take Chemistry and all the subjects related to Sciences more seriously. I am sorry for my boyfriend, too. I know he is coming from another town, but he’ll have to understand.”

Rakiya hung up and went to her room, pondering how the decision she had made would affect her future.

For several years now, she had been working as the sanitary inspector she dreamed of being. Usually she took Cookie with her while going to help the people who called her.

Even if she was only 18 years old, she solved cases with the team, real cases coming from real people. They called her and presented her with the case, and then she and her team went to the location of the problem to analyse the situation. Rakiya started to remember…

The first case was that of the Bright family. They lived in a flat near a big park and they accused the municipality of contaminating the water, since it was red.

Rakiya and the team arrived to their house at noon to test the water. Rakiya felt like a detective. She was even dressed like one, in her black jacket and she had her mother’s black hat. She felt great.

The Bright family asked about the sanitary inspector, and Rakiya answered that he would also come in about two days. They seemed satisfied.

The water was indeed red, but Rakiya noticed that the pipes were rusty. When Rakiya asked the family when they had last replaced the pipes, they replied that they never have.

Rakiya called the sanitary inspector and presented a short version of the case. He advised her to tell the Bright family to put in some new pipes. They thanked Rakiya and her friends, gave Cookie a bone, and promised to replace the pipes.

Back in the present, it was a Monday. As usual, Rakiya expected the phone to ring with more cases for her team. But it didn’t. There was silence for several hours.

At 3 o’clock sharp, the phone rang noisily, unexpectedly and insistently. Rakiya answered, hearing the voice of an old woman:

“Hello. I am Miss Hauwa. Something is wrong with the water from my fountain. I live in a house with my cat Doty and we used to use the water from the fountain for drinking and for cooking. But today, when I wanted to get a bucket of water, something strange happened. The water was not as usual. I am sure that the fertilisers and the pesticides applied to crops are the cause. I also know that they can seep into the ground and contaminate underwater rivers and waterbeds and thus compromise the quality of the water from my fountain. What do you think?”

She seemed well informed.

“Hello, Miss Hauwa. I will be at your house in an hour. I hope that your cat is not afraid of dogs because I take Cookie, my dog, everywhere I go.”

“It is all right, dear. And thank you for the good work you do. I know that you do this as a volunteer.”

“Yes, Miss Hauwa. I really want to pass the interview to enter the university, and after two or three years I will become a sanitary inspector. You know, it is my dream.”

Did you know that there are several types of water pollution? For example, chemical pollution, groundwater pollution, microbiological pollution, nutrient pollution, oxygen-depletion pollution, and surface water pollution,” Rakiya said rapidly, as if she was completing an oral exam.

Miss Hauwa seemed very interested in what Rakiya had told her. She also remembered that there were places in the world where there were no adequate water treatment systems and thus the population from that area could suffer from bilharzia or even cholera, two very dangerous diseases! Those diseases are caused by microorganisms such as bacteria, protozoa, and viruses.

Rakiya talked on the phone for about an hour. It seemed that she had found her dream conversation partner on this subject. Afterwards, she arrived at Miss Dean’s home.

“Hello, dear. I am glad that you could come. See for yourself,” she said while showing Rakiya the fountain.

After a quick look, Rakiya had to recognize that Miss Hauwa was right. Rakiya also discovered that near Miss Hauwa’s house there was a field of corn that was sprayed with fertilisers and pesticides.

Rakiya went and talked with the owner of that land and explained to him that what he was doing was affecting the water in that area. The man was surprised. He said he didn’t realize that spraying his crops could have such an effect. He promised to use something else for his corn.

It was now Wednesday. On Tuesday, the phone had been quiet all day.

But Rakiya had something else to think about. She found out that her family wanted to move. They wanted Rakiya to change schools to one in the new town. This was bad! Not only would she be away from the team, but that area was a desert. No water! No lake, no ocean nearby, not one river! Can you imagine? Just some tap water. She didn’t know what to say to her parents, so she went out and decided to call Marjorie.

“Hello, Marjorie. How are you?”

“Hello, Rakiya. I am fine, thank you for asking. Someone from a hotel called me and asked me to gather the team. We have another case. It is something about their water having too much chlorine. They cannot use their water for cooking since it has a certain taste and you know… They want us to go and check and then to inform the authorities about the problem. Apparently their clients complain about the food.”

“Oh, dear. Water should not have any taste! Okay, we will go in about an hour.

“Okay, Rakiya. I tried to call Jane, but she didn’t answer her phone. I don’t know why.”

“Try to call her again. It’s an important case!”

The girls said goodbye.

The wheels in Rakiya’s brain started to turn without making a sound. If there was too much chlorine in the water, there must be a reason. Maybe the water had been infected and the authorities wanted to prevent the population from contracting some disease.

About half an hour later, the team was at the hotel, minus Jane.  Rakiya knew that Jane had an exam, so maybe that was the reason she had not answered.

The girls went to the kitchen to talk to the cook. He was a gorgeous guy with blue eyes and curly black hair, and he was gazing at Rakiya.

Rakiya was not interested. Jack, her boyfriend, was patiently waiting for her, as today was their anniversary. They had met about four years ago, on the 2nd of February, which was also today’s date.  Rakiya and Jack had planned to go out and see a film, and then maybe take a walk in the park near Rakiya’s home.

The cook’s name was Bill. Seeing that Rakiya was not interested in him, he shifted his attentions to Marjorie. He told her about the water problem, and that one could taste the chlorine if they drank a glass of water. Even after boiling it, the taste still bothered the cooks. It also had a whitish colour.

Marjorie put some water in a glass and, using her instruments, measured the amount of chlorine in it. It was a lot, indeed.

Rakiya called someone she knew that was responsible for the water in that part of town and asked why the water had so much chlorine. She was told that it happened accidently. They had hired a new guy and he didn’t know how much to use to keep the water in good condition. Rakiya asked them to fix the problem by tomorrow morning, or the hotel would sue them. They were losing clients.

Meanwhile, Marjorie was talking in a corner with Bill. Rakiya saw that they were laughing and Marjorie seemed happy with her new friend.

So, Rakiya thought, “Why not? Why not help Marjorie have a boyfriend! She seemed so lonely after Dean, that awful boyfriend she had, left her.”

Rakiya invited Marjorie and Bill to go out with her and Jack to see a film. The cook agreed and Marjorie looked very happy. The four new friends went to see “Titanic”, a film with a lot of water in it. Maybe it had too much.

After the film, they went for a walk in the park nearby and Rakiya had an idea. What if Bill helped Jack with his exam? Jack wanted to be a cook, and Bill seemed the right person to ask.

The next day, in the morning, Bill called Rakiya and told her that the problem with the water was solved. He also mentioned that starting that day, he could help Jack with his studies to become a cook.

It was the end of the week. Rakiya felt relaxed, even though she had to prepare for the interview. February 9th was rapidly approaching. She had to move fast. She had to revise Chemistry, Botany, and some other Science subjects. Her main concern was to remember the types of water pollution, because she had heard that the teacher who would interview her was fond of this subject.

But Rakiya had an advantage. She had her team of amateur sanitary inspectors. Her team, as well as the sanitary inspector, had helped her to better understand the water sector and those things related to water that for other people felt unfamiliar. She knew that a sanitary inspector had to perform a lot of duties, among which she could name the supervision of a town’s water supply, the maintenance of a register of wells, the disinfection of the water supply in times of epidemics, and so on. Briefly, everything related to a town’s water was the sanitary inspector’s concern.

Rakiya was informed that the minimum entry requirement for the course was that the candidate must have completed 10+2 with Science, and that the duration of the course was one or three academic years, depending on the university one had chosen. Admission to the course leading to a Diploma in Sanitary Inspector was generally based on merit and on a short interview. There were no entrance examinations conducted for this course anywhere in the country. The seats were allotted on the basis of marks secured by the candidates in high school.

Rakiya was preparing for her interview by rereading the types of water pollution. She could not remember the nutrient pollution type. With the book in her hand, she read carefully,

“While the nutrients are vital for underwater flora and fauna to flourish, an excess of these can upset the delicate balance of water-based ecosystems. Fertilisers contain a high concentration of these nutrients which, if they contaminate rivers, lakes, or other sources of water, can cause algal blooming, which could block the sunlight, thus inhibiting the growth of other organisms.”

She had read and reread this fragment, but she just could not understand what she was reading. Her thoughts were elsewhere. She continued to read about the oxygen-depletion pollution,

“Another consequence of algal blooming is their consumption of oxygen supplies. This means that those species which depend upon oxygen to survive are killed off, while anaerobic ones thrive. Some anaerobic microorganisms are capable of producing ammonia, sulphides, and other harmful toxins, which can make the water even more dangerous to animals and to humans. They could become ill or even die.”

Rakiya was paying attention, but she could not understand why she should remember those things. She thought to call the sanitary inspector, Mr Jamil Sani.


Initially, his wife answered.

“Hello! Could you pass me Jamil, please? Thank you,” Rakiya said.


Rakiya heard her calling for her husband before he came on the line, “Hello, Rakiya. I was in a meeting. I am working almost non-stop, you know. What was it you wanted to tell me?”

“Hello, Jamil. I don’t understand some of the words from the text I am reading for the interview. I feel lost without your explanations. What is an ecosystem? And fertilisers, what are they, exactly? Nutrients stand for what? What about anaerobic?”

Jamil started to patiently explain to her the terms, “An ecosystem is a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment. Now as for fertilisers, they are chemical or natural substances added to the soil or to the land to increase its fertility. Like in the case of Miss Dean and the man with the corn who used fertilisers to increase his yield. A nutrient is a substance that provides nourishment, which is essential for the maintenance of life and for growth. And anaerobic is a term that is related to or requires an absence of free oxygen.”

Rakiya was paying attention. She started to write down some of the answers. She knew that she would need them to pass that interview.

She felt confident. More confident than the morning when she had received her letter of admission. Now, she felt ready to go for her dream.

The phone rang. It was another case. She heard something like “surface water pollution”. The case dealt with a person who owned a trout stream. He had found fragments of plastic, rubber, and other manmade materials floating on the water, and he did not know what to think.

Because they were too robust to dissolve in the water and too big to mix effectively with the molecules, they were simply floating on the trout stream’s surface, preventing oxygen and sunlight from penetrating below. As the trout started to die, the man felt desperate, so when he heard about Rakiya’s team, he decided to give her a chance.

Rakiya went to his trout stream and saw with her own eyes how a man was intentionally throwing his garbage into the water. Rakiya shouted at him and asked him to stop. She found out later that the man was her client’s neighbour who was envious of her client’s trout stream.

When Rakiya talked to him, the man recognized that he was affecting not only his neighbour but also other people, and promised to stop and to try to clean the mess that he had caused.

The man kept his promises. He even joined a team whose mission was to keep rivers, lakes, and even the sea clean. The team was helping to preserve the quality of water, including the prevention of accidental oil spills or negligent industries emptying waste into water bodies.

February the 9tharrived. Today it was Rakiya’s birthday, but she was not at a party.

No, she was at her interview. Feeling confident, she entered the room and she answered the questions. Though she was in front of a commission of people she was not stressed, because she knew all the answers.

The commission had one last question for her, “Why do you want to be a sanitary inspector?”

Her answer seemed to please them, “I care about others. I care about their health, I care about environment, and I care about the planet. I also like all that comes with this career. When I was younger, I didn’t know much about the job of a sanitary inspector, but once I found out what was all about, I wanted to become one even more.”

And guess what? She was at the top of their list!