Feature : Her superpower is rural borehole repair

Primrose Masiyakurima (centre) at work in Dora Pindo, Manicaland province

When Primrose Masiyakurima trained to become a village pump mechanic, she did not know that she would later be regarded as a hero in Dora Pindo, a rural area of close to 3 000 households situated about 20 kilometers outside the city of Mutare, in eastern Zimbabwe.

She plays an instrumental role in ensuring her community and other nearby towns have a constant water supply through her knowledge and expertise in repairing boreholes, deep and narrow shafts drilled into the ground to locate and extract water. Millions of Zimbabweans rely on more than 40 000 boreholes for their water, but repairs by government officials can take days, months, even years.  That is where Masiyakurima and other village pump mechanics come in to ensure access to potable water by repairing boreholes in rural areas.

“As long as it is a minor problem, it takes me a few hours to restore the borehole,” said Masiyakurima (39). Many of the other village pump mechanics she trained with in 2017 have since abandoned the work, citing lack of payment —  so Masiyakurima has mastered repairing boreholes on her own, or at times with help from community members.

The experience has paid off. “I always joke that I can even do this in my sleep,” she said.

Masiyakurima is one of nine women and 87 men trained as village pump mechanics under the Community-Based Management initiative, a component of the rural water, sanitation and hygiene programme in Mutare district. The programme is a collaboration between the government and Unicef, to help ensure sustainable, safe water and sanitation for Zimbabweans in rural areas.

Masiyakurima uses the skills acquired during the training to handle repairs at 26 boreholes serving 12 villages in her area.

The programme does not provide the mechanics with a stipend, and sometimes community members will gather money to pay them. Masiyakurima said she usually receives US$10 or US$20 for a repair.

Repairs by the Department of District Development Fund, the government agency responsible for drilling and maintaining boreholes, are often slow-going even if all spare parts are available, they can take up to three days. So Masiyakurima and her fellow village pump mechanics step in when they can to fix minor problems.

The Zimbabwean Constitution guarantees the right to safe, clean and potable water, but according to a 2020 report by the World Health Organization and Unicef, 63% of Zimbabweans have basic drinking water services. A 2020 Gallup World Poll reported that 53% of Zimbabweans are dissatisfied with local water quality.

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the need for reliable water supplies, especially for rural communities that cannot afford hand sanitisers and other personal protective equipment. It also worsened the water crisis in Zimbabwe that existed well before COVID-19.

Aid agencies and government ministries have been working for at least 15 years to boost local water access across the country, and village pump mechanics have been touted as key to that effort, with trainings dating to 2007 under different organisations. As of 2014, Unicef  trained 1 215 village pump mechanics.

Zimbabwe has approximately 41 754 boreholes in all  provinces, according to data by the Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Resettlement ministry, but the functionality of those boreholes stands at just 55%, due to the lack of repairs to those that have broken down, Anxious Masuka, head of the ministry, said in a parliamentary hearing last year.

In addition to the difficult work of making repairs to existing boreholes, local and government officials acknowledge the need to drill more.

Councilor Abu Masibango, of Dora Pindo’s Ward 35, said the 26 boreholes in his area — three of which are not  working because they need spare parts — are not enough for the 2 900 households they are meant to service.

To address the shortage, the Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Resettlement ministry plans to drill 44 600 boreholes countrywide by 2025.

In 2021, Treasury and other government ministries availed 1,11 billion Zimbabwean dollars (US$7,4 million) to drill around 1 800 boreholes. It is unclear if the ministry met this first phase of that goal in 2021.

The ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Edwin Toriro, director of water supplies and maintenance at the District Development Fund, however, said  629 boreholes of the 1 800 targeted for 2021 had been drilled as of September by both the group and development partners. The agency was responsible for drilling 203 of the 629, falling short of its target goal of 399, according to an agency report published in December. The final number of boreholes drilled by development partners last year was not available.

Toriro said another challenge of maintaining sustainable water supplies is securing enough resources to make available spare parts for all the broken-down boreholes. The challenges the agency faces, according to the report, are lack of transport to get to areas to repair boreholes, shortage of fuel to do so, lack of spare parts and lack of tools to use in repairs.

“For the communities, parts cannot be sourced at local hardware suppliers, but from a select few hardware stores, which increases the time and cost of fixing the broken-down borehole,” said Toriro.

Councilor Masibango said Masiyakurima’s training as a village pump mechanic has proved invaluable to Dora Pindo.

“Being a woman in a male-dominated field has been a blessing to us as a community,” he said. “Women do not move around a lot, and they are passionate about what they do. We, know that if we have any problem with our water source, Masiyakurima is readily available for us.”

For Masiyakurima, motivation is found close to home. “Being a mother, I know the struggles of walking long distances looking for water,” she said, “which is why I do what I do.”

  • Evidence Chenjerai is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Mutare, Zimbabwe.