Rural dwellers’ silent revolution against killer-diseases’
If you reside in a village where you consume brown, muddy water drawn from a pond shared with cows and goats, with your surroundings enveloped in repugnant smell from open defecation, you are already a candidate for diseases and death.
Even, if you keep neat surroundings but indulge in gulping water from questionable sources, you need no physician to tell you that your health is already compromised.
These were the stark realities in most Nigerian communities as a result of unwholesome hygiene habits, dearth of safe water, compounded by ignorance, until about two years ago when new improved sanitation and hygiene practices started gaining momentum.
From generation to generation, open defecation in rural communities was a non-issue. The young and the old relished in it, for they never linked its consequences to the prevailing diseases killing children, and even the adult, especially women.
‘’We defecated openly in surrounding bushes because that was the way our forebears lived and out of ignorance, would run to native doctors when diseases struck,’’ recalls 54-year-old Chief Akanmu Karimu, head of Oke Akeju village in Opeji community, Odeda Local Government Area of Ogun State, south-west Nigeria.
‘’Our source of drinking water was a river which traverses our village, and although we usually kept its surroundings neat, upstream villagers defecated in it while cattle also drank from it.’’
Experts say ingesting a gramme of faeces deposited by houseflies on uncovered food is like eating 10 million viruses, one million bacteria, 1,000 parasite cysts and 100 parasite eggs.
This can cause typhoid, cholera, hepatitis, polio, pneumonia, fatal worm infestation, trachoma, stunted physical development and impaired cognitive functions.
Statistics also indicate that diarrhoea kills at least 150,000 children yearly, while under-five mortality is high in Nigeria where 157 out of 1,000 babies born die before they celebrate their fifth birthday.
No wonder, villagers’ participation in economy, politics, sports as well as schooling activities are greatly hampered when much of their time and money was spent attending to diseases and deaths. They are now saying, ‘Enough is enough’.
Consequently, a silent revolution has started sweeping across. From Sokoto to Cross River, from Adamawa to Ogun and Ekiti, in Benue and in Akwa Ibom, villagers are fast removing the toga of dirt, and wearing the immaculate dress of cleanliness. Villagers are being introduced to Community-Led Total Sanitation, or CLTS, an approach which discourages open defecation but promotes proper hand washing with water, soap or ash as well as building pit latrines and maintaining neat surroundings.
Communities are encouraged to own the programme through the establishment of Water and Sanitation Committees or WASHCOMs whose members spread the health messages in each community.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which plays a vital role in advancing the implementation of CLTS across the country, says 50 million Nigerians openly defecate while more than 100 million others are without access to improved sanitation.
It notes that more than 66 million people are relying on unsafe water, with water and sanitation coverage as low as 58 per cent and 31 per cent respectively.
UNICEF and the European Union, in partnership with each state government, are providing water and sanitation facilities in villages, schools and even in camps of Internally Displaced Persons across the country.
Consider the reality at Ilu Omooba, a peasant community in Ekiti State in South-West, where the life and ambition of 12-year-old Timilehin Fayomi could have been truncated but for the introduction of the simple hand-washing practice in his primary school.
Prior to the introduction, Timilehin took ill, apparently from the dirty hygiene habits at school which was surrounded by open defecation by nearby residents, as well as at home. The top-flight boy missed classes and could no longer cope academically.
His head teacher, Mrs Victoria Fatoyinbo, remarks: ‘’In 2014, my school participated in a hand-washing programme organised by UNICEF. Following that, we established a Health Club where health messages were internalised in the school and shared among community members, including the Parent-Teacher Association.
‘’Timilehin’s family members were beneficiaries of the health programme, and today, the boy has bounced back academically. For us, the improved sanitation and hygiene practices are the best that has happened to our school of 349 pupils, as we are now open-defecation free, complemented by the sinking of a borehole in the school.’’
In Mbanabe community in Fufore LGA, Adamawa State in the north east, engaging in water, sanitation and hygiene practices have extricated the villagers from these barbaric and odious practice of open defecation while a bore hole has replaced the pond which had over the years, served as their main source of supply. The village head, Malam Musa Isa says: ‘’one noticeable observation is improvement in health status of children who often broke down and would not take the cattle for grazing. Now school attendance has risen and hospital attendance has tumbled in the community.’’
They also believe that with adequate supply of safe water, bilharzia diseases which had been the unwanted companion at a nearby Wurobiriji community for many years, will be on its way out.
Full attendance and high intellectual performance are guaranteed in Sabongari Gilrs’ Primary School in Fufore, hitherto shunned for lack of safe water, especially when many of these girls are in their monthly periods. Complemented by latrines and a bore hole, these girls now dream of luxuriously-pampered ambitions because of the conducive learning environment.
Of striking importance in rural water provision in Adamawa State is the ever willing communities to give their counterpart contributions, as narrated by community heads in Fufore Local Government Area and corroborated by the Programme Manager of the state rural water and sanitation agency, Malam Halilu Mohammed.
‘’When you ask them for their contributions, they produce the money the following day. This act has helped in procuring water to the 21 LGAs, while many of the 372 communities are fast assuming open-defecation status,’’ Mohammed says.
Even persons with disabilities in Shendam and Riyom communities in Plateau, in north central are not left out of the campaign for improved sanitation and hygiene practices.
‘’For me, the health of my people is paramount, and if my community has to progress from my disability, I will give it all,’’ says 36-year-old Danladi Dambo, whose loss of a leg will not dissuade him from being a natural leader and member of WASHCOM in his Tigi Community of Riyom, Plateau State, since 2014 when the programme was introduced.
The villagers are saying that if provided with half of the opportunities that abound in urban communities, the sky will be their limit.
Undoubtedly, provision of potable water and improved sanitation and hygiene practices is expected to give rise to a healthy rural population. With the health revolution spreading like wild fires, life in rural communities is becoming enviable, hoping to halt rural-urban migration, and enhancing social, political and economic development, but most of all, adding value to the survival, protection, development and participation of children.
* Ponle, a former Director at News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), is an independent writer