The night air was chilly. Amahle and Thabo walked along the dusty road. Already autumn leaves were scattered along their path.

“Don’t be disheartened Thabo,” said Amahle. “Change always starts with a few people. The one person there who you convinced was my dad, so I’ll chat to him and see if he can persuade some of his friends to join us.’”

“I just can’t believe they’d give up so easily.”

“They’ve been bullied a lot by the mine bosses.”

“And why didn’t anyone stop those kids from playing in that water?”

“Thabo, this is the country, not the city. Kids roam free, you know that.”

“I just can’t stop thinking that I should have been here to stop them from playing in that water. I should have–”

“Stop it, Thabo. Stop blaming yourself. The main thing is that you are here now, doing something.”

“Yes, talking to deaf ears.”

Amahle linked her arm through Thabo’s as they walked. It felt good having her close. She made him calmer. Things felt like they would be OK when she was around.

“The specialist is coming in tomorrow to check up on Sipho. I’ll phone you.”

“Thanks. I don’t know what I’d do without you here…”

They walked for a while in silence, with the night sounds of crickets and distant croaking frogs keeping them company. Soon they were on the path down to the river, where the moonlight fell onto the water, making glimmering silver patterns. The water looked clear and inviting, and seemed to beckon Thabo for a swim, despite the cool autumn air. It felt hard to believe that this dancing water was so polluted.

Thabo and Amahle sat close together on a rock for a while, in silence. To Thabo, it was a relief and a comfort, like a cool wind after a scorching day, to simply sit with Amahle on the riverbank.

“I haven’t even asked what’s your news,” said Thabo eventually, breaking the silence. “All I’ve talked about is my stuff.”

“Well, it’s hectic stuff. It’s your brother in hospital,” replied Amahle.

“So … how are you? Do you like nursing?”

“Yes. This is my first year of work. I really like it. I guess that like you, I feel I can help and make some difference to people’s lives.”

Thabo smiled. “You’re doing a great job. I could see how caring you are when you were looking after Sipho today.”

A small buck came down to the water. They watched it drink, so peaceful against the moonlit water. Thabo wanted to shout: Don’t drink! It’s poisoned! But this was the creature’s river. Where else could it find water?

“It’s getting late.” Amahle stood up.

As they walked back in the dark Thabo reached out and took her hand. It was warm. She didn’t pull it away. They walked together back to the village and her house.

“See you at the hospital tomorrow,” said Amahle brightly.

Thabo reluctantly let go of her hand.

“Definitely. And thanks for today.”

* * * * *

Early the next morning, before work at the mine started, a group of men and women accompanied Thabo to the old shaft entrance to test the pool water. He carefully scooped it into a test tube, closed the lid, and labelled the tube.

Two days passed and, just as Thabo predicted, the water tested positive for a high concentration of the heavy metals and sulphuric acid that could cause cancer and other diseases.

That evening, Thabo went to visit Amahle and her family to tell them the results of the water test. Delicious grilled chops, pap and salad were on the table, and they invited Thabo join them.

“That was a brave talk you gave the other night,” said Amahle’s father.

“Thanks Tata, but it’s got me nowhere – no support from the community. And today was worse. I spent hours trying to get an appointment with Mr van Rensberg. I tried his deputy managers, but no-one would meet with me. Then I tried the Department of Water Affairs and the person in charge of water was out of the office. And so it went on and on. Phones slammed down, doors closed before they had even been opened a crack.”

Thabo slumped in his chair. His eyes, that usually sparkled with enthusiasm and excitement, looked dull and despondent.

“You can’t give up yet Thabo. What happened with the water test?”

“I was right. The water is polluted with heavy metals and sulphuric acid. I just don’t know what the next step is.”

“The problem is people don’t know you well anymore. You’ve been away at university, and now they don’t trust you. Not the community or the officials,” said Amahle’s father.

“What should I do?”

“I think I need to speak to some interested people in our community. Tell them about the results of the test, show them. Get you some more support. Then we can go and talk to the officials.”

“Would you do that?” said Thabo.

“Yes, I’ll call some of them tonight. But I assure you I will have a group tomorrow. We will meet you at the mine.”

“Thank you Tata, thank you!”

“This is important Thabo. We should thank you. How’s your little brother doing?”

“He’s doing well,” Amahle said encouragingly. “They got all the cancer.”

“He should be able to come home soon,” Thabo said.

“That’s good, that’s good,” Amahle’s father said.

“But I’m worried about Patrick,” Thabo said. “He’s their other friend. He was also playing in the water. Nobody seems to have seen him. He hasn’t been at school.”

“We can go and visit his family,” Amahle said and took Thabo’s hand. “We’ll go together.”

“But first we’ll go to the mine. I will bring the men with me and meet you there,” said Tat’uJola.

* * *

Tell us what you think: Is it common for rural communities to mistrust university-educated scientists and their ideas. If so, why?