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Drinking unclean water on a regular basis can lead to long term low level health problems. It is therefore worth going to the trouble of providing yourself with clean water (e.g., water-purifying tablets, portable water filters, using boiled water). While such precautions will go a long way to help secure your own water supply, you will almost certainly find yourself in situations where it would be socially damaging to refuse a drink of possibly dodgy water: when visiting people, or when living in somebody else's household. Accepting such drinks may pose a health risk, but refusing them may be socially unacceptable. It won't be easy to find a balance between maintaining your health and maintaining your social obligations, and you may want to consider the following factors: your own sense of well-being, possibilities to negotiate your reservations with your hosts, possibilities of being offered alternative drinks (e.g., tea, soft drinks) or alternatives to drinks (e.g., kola nuts).

Questions you need to know the answers to:

  • Is the local water supply clean and reliable?
  • If not, how will I secure enough clean water?
  • What equipment (eg. stove, containers for carrying water) or supplies (eg. fuel, iodine tablets, water filter) will I need for this and how will I maintain them?

In many parts of Africa, visitors are offered a glass of water before introductions and greetings can even begin. During my initial fieldwork, I made several attempts to explain my reservations. And although people accepted these explanations (possibly because numerous health campaigns had made them aware of the risks), it was clear that they found my refusal strange and somewhat inappropriate. After all, as some people pointed out to me, it's only a single glass of water. At some point, I decided to risk it and to accept these drinks - and our social relations changed perceptibly: my hosts respected me for doing as they did, and our relationships became warmer. And very fortunately, I haven't yet got seriously ill from drinking unclean water...

-- Birgit Hellwig