By Chioma Umeha
Many people of Bangai in Riyom Local Government Area(LGA), Plateau State were still less ignorant when Samuel died. He was a 10-year-old pupil of Bangai Community primary school.
‘Samuel was pressed to pass feaces, so he quickly dashed into the closest bush. With his tiny frail hands, he quickly reached out for a short stick and quickly he has made a little hole. There he passed feaces. Immediately, he plucked some fresh leaves from a nearby plant to clean his butt. He hurriedly cleaned himself, leaving some of the feacal matter on his hands.
Then it was common practice for not only children, even adults to defecate openly in many communities in Bangai.
Washing of hands was hardly practiced. The only stream in the school community was less than one kilometre away. But, the path to the stream was rough, hilly, unsecured and its water was not safe for drinking.
Bangai is one example of hundreds of communities in Nigeria where access to safe water, adequate sanitation and hygiene facilities is still lacking.
Bangai is in Riyom Local Government Area of Plateau State.
Many people in the area practise bad hygiene, including open defecation. But, when the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), sensitised the populace to the dangers of poor hygiene, they decided to turn a new leaf.
The crisis of lack of access to safe water, adequate sanitation and hygiene facilities in Bangai seems like one of the ugly narrative of a crisis-laden health sector according to some community members.
Mrs. Victoria Gyang Head Teacher, Community Primary School, Bangai Local Education Area in Plateau State confirmed this said when spoke to DAILY INDEPENDENT.
Gyang said, “Before now, to defecate was simple in Bangai community, but unhealthy. All that anyone needed to do was to just use a stick and make a hole, then pass faeces in it.
“People easily reached out for any nearby fresh leaves to clean their butts. Washing of hands with or without soap was completely a strange exercise,” she added.
The Head Teacher bemoaned deaths of many Bangai children from water-borne diseases.
She said, “Then, we often had emergencies as children were often coming down with waterborne disease such as cholera, diarrhoea, among others.”
“It is sad, we have lost many children in this community due to lack of access to safe drinking water and poor hygiene,” Gyang further said.
“Samuel was an orphan and a Primary Three pupil being raised by her relatives. He was among those whose parents died during the 2008 crisis.”
She lamented, “Many of the children die before the age of five and their dreams are buried with them.”
Open defecation is almost common everywhere around the country. Recently, back in the city of Lagos, for instance, a young man dashed out of his shop with clenched teeth, pulled open his trousers, took a quick look around, retired to a small bush by the church building, and dropped off lumps of smelly faeces.
His action did not surprise many passers-by who merely looked away, for it is a ritual of sort in many parts of the country. In nearly every open space in and around rural communities, heaps of faeces literally jostle for space with human beings. From some homes, faeces wrapped up in newspapers are thrown from windows, scattering into a spatter mess; it piles the streets as though they are articles of ornament. However, no one appeared to worry about it.
In Bangai, Yakubu Bwede, the chief of the community, said, “What you often found in few privileged homes was a makeshift toilet in which wooden plank platform were constructed with buckets under it.
“Family members often dropped off lumps of smelly faeces into the bucket which they disposed later. The sight of such was quite repulsive.
However, the European Union (EU) funded UNICEF programme, has changed all that in Bangai. It did not only provide borehole for the community school, but has built a modern toilet for it. So far, the facilities have started to improve hand-washing compliance and water and sanitation standards in the school.
The students on their part have become change agents as they spread the good news to their parents, educating them of the benefits derivable from such practice.
Explaining measures which are taken to ensure that all pupils in Bangai Primary School use the toilet and do not defecate in the bush, Catherine John, Toilet/Health Prefect said, they often discipline those who defecate in the bush to serve as deterrence. “We flog those that still go to toilet in the bush and ask them not to go to the bush again.”
Concerning maintenance of hygiene in the toilets, Catherine said; “We ensure that the toilets are locked and whoever wants to use it often requests for the key to gain access to it. The reason we lock the toilet is to ensure that they flush it after use.” As at the time DAILY INDEPENDENT visited Bangai in March, the community has embraced good hygiene.
Confirming this, Bwede, said they have gradually, but steadily embraced the new development. He said the community had agreed to make it mandatory for every household to provide toilet facility.
The chief of the community also said, “Those who do not comply with this directive, which is monitored periodically, are fined N2000 as penalty for not doing so.
“Such money collected is used to provide public toilet for the community so that everyone could be part of this live-saving intervention from UNICEF. This has reduced the incidents of death occasioned by bacteria-induced infections by over two third. And we are grateful to EU/UNICEF,” he told DAILY INDEPENDENT.
Corroborating, Danlami Choji, Chairman, Parents Teachers Association (PTA) Bangai Community Primary School, said since the borehole was built we don’t see people go to the river again. Most people in this community now use the borehole instead of going to the river.
Choji also said, “The borehole is better than the river. Though the river is close, but people are now using the borehole instead of the going to the river.
“Fetching water from the borehole is more convenient, safer and healthier than the river. Stories of children bitten by dangerous reptiles or fighting inside the river has become a past thing.
“Water-borne diseases like cholera, diarrhoea, typhoid and so on were common, when we were using water from the river. But since we started drinking water from the borehole, this has reduced. We have about 10 boreholes and they are all are working.”
Challenge of unsafe water and poor hygiene
Safe water, adequate sanitation and hygiene facilities are critical to the survival, growth and well-being of the child. This is because safe water is essential for life and sanitation. Good hygiene also enhances good health.
In Nigeria, however, access to clean water and sanitation is generally improving – but at a slow pace.
The recent Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS), conducted by the government in 2016/17 indicated that about 40 per cent of households and over 69 million people do not have access to clean water in Nigeria.
Water-borne diseases and childhood mortality
However, UNICEF indicated that children without access to safe water are more likely to die in infancy or during childhood from waterborne diseases.
It added that diarrhoea remains the leading cause of death among children under the age of five in Nigeria.
The UNICEF report said, “Waterborne diseases also contribute to stunting of growth in children. A stunted child is shorter than she or he could have been and will never be able to reach her or his full cognitive potential.”
“Children are dying every day from diseases, such as diarrhoea, even though we know how to prevent them,” said Clarissa Brocklehurst, chief of water and sanitation for UNICEF.
“We must work hand in hand – health professionals alongside engineers – to ensure that improvements in water supply, sanitation and hygiene reach everyone.”
UNICEF noted that diarrhoea, cholera, typhoid and other diseases can easily be prevented with cheap and proven interventions such as pit latrines and hand-washing with soap.
Regardless, progress has been ‘painfully slow’ in many developing countries, the organisation said.