Black Rivers

It has been pouring rain all morning here.

I slept late and woke up to the sounds of shrieking children outside my window.  The rain that emptied out of the gutter at the corner of the terrace was drumming on a plastic cooler, and two little boys were sitting under the spray.  It’s not supposed to stop raining today.  I have to travel to two interviews, one out of town on a country road that runs along a black river.

Black rivers are open sewers.  A lot of the time, they’re creeks and canals that have become so polluted that they have turned black.  Sometimes, there is no distinction between a black creek and a polluted stream.  The black is a cold, mildewy matte black, like the rainclouds that tumble over the horizon.  Small bubbles surface when the water heats under the sunlight, and the edges of the black rivers are choked with weeds and vines and plastic litter.  When I was here in 2009, I crossed a bridge over a black river on the way to my NGO, and early in the morning a flotilla of soap suds would come skating downstream from the washtubs of the women who hand-laundered clothes for a dollar a kilo.

The black rivers are devoid of fish.  After I had been here half a year, I learned that the fish don’t die of toxins.  They asphyxiate – the fecal bacteria in the water devour all the oxygen.  I also met a young woman doing a science experiment on cleansing black water with plants.  She made old water jugs into ripariums and planted water weeds to see if they would leach out the bacteria.  She showed me three sets of tanks, and said that over time the plants had managed to clear the water to a pale gray suitable for watering plants.  She was working on formal ‘grey water,’ which is odorless and colorless and can be used to wash dishes even though it is not potable.

The black rivers – and there are black pools, black ponds – give off a latrine stink, different from the sour fruity smell of the trash piles.  When I was here the first time, crossing the black river to the school was an ordeal, but not now.

The river outside the hostel is not black but a flat olive green, and since this morning its level is higher.  The paved road along the river is half submerged in coppery brown water, and I can hear motos and cars slashing through it.


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