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A few women’s stories about water

March 22, 2018

In 2000 all the member states of the United Nations signed on to this series of eight Millennium Development Goals to be achieved by the year 2015. All highly laudable at the time. Most not yet achieved.


As laudable as these goals were, at least four of them could have been largely achieved with one goal: Ensure access to clean water and hygiene education.

Gordon Brown was, as Chancellor and then as Prime Minister, and is now in private life a great champion of development, with a particular emphasis on global education, which he has referred to as the “civil rights struggle of our age”. There is a great deal of truth in this argument, but, if I’d ever met Gordon Brown, I would have pointed out to him that a child sick with diarrhoea cannot go to school nor can a girl (because it is considered female work) who must help her mother with the daily task of fetching often filthy water for the family.

Sa'a Ali collects water from a dirty pond

Sa’a Ali collects water from a dirty pond, Fikayi, Nigeria © Suzanne Porter

Today, on World Water Day (during which 6000 children will die of waterborne diseases) there are some of the stories I would like to tell Gordon Brown.

Before a well was installed in the Nigerian village of Birnin Gaye, the women and girls had to spend up to three hours a day collecting water. During the dry season (most of the year), this involved digging deep into a dry riverbed and sharing with their livestock the water they used for drinking, cooking and cleaning. During the height of the rainy season in the summer months the river would swell and flow so rapidly that there was a danger of being swept away.

birnin gaye

Adana Haruna © Suzanne Porter

Mother of six, Adana Haruna, demonstrating the old procedure, told me an all too familiar story. Before the well and the hygiene education classes, her children were frequently ill. One died. In addition to the cost of the medicine, she would have to pay someone to take her to the clinic 14 kilometres away. Each illness cost 1000 borrowed naira and the debt was endless. The time she saves on fetching water allows her to make a bit of extra money labouring. That and the money saved on medicine are going towards the cost of school fees and uniforms for her children. All of them, boys and girls, will be able to get at least a basic education. She hopes they will also go to secondary school and perhaps even university. She doesn’t know whether it is the well or the hygiene education that has made the difference. She’s just happy that her children aren’t always sick.

I’d also tell Gordon Brown about Bilki Ibrahim, the female hygiene promoter in Ladin Kani, another northern village.

bilki interview

Interviewing Biliki Ibrahim © Suzanne Porter

It is her job to get the message across to the women in the village that they and their children must wash their hands with soap and water after defecating and before and after preparing food. She also teaches them how to bathe their children and themselves, along with the importance of keeping their environment clean and their food and water containers covered. I ask how she does this, whether there are meetings or she goes from home to home. Mostly, she tells me, she goes from home to home, as women are not allowed to have meetings separate from the men, but she also takes advantage of weddings and naming ceremonies, when the whole village is gathered, to talk to women in groups. Although people never used to think about using the bush as a toilet or understood the importance of washing with soap and water, she knows the hygiene education must be true, because her children are much healthier. She and her husband always used to be in debt from borrowing money to pay for medicine when the children had diarrhoea. If they were lucky they’d have one debt of 600 naira paid off before incurring the next. (This may sound like a lot of money, but 600 naira is approximately £2.50. Recurring, overwhelming debts of £2.50. Three and a half times the amount the majority of Nigerians live on per day. Half a week’s salary in our terms.) When women complain to her about the cost (20-40 naira) of buying soap, she reminds them of the cost of medicine.

If Gordon Brown doesn’t understand the need to prioritise water and hygiene, he should go to Warok in Nigeria’s Middle Belt and talk to the primary school teacher Patience Dominic.


Patience Dominic’s school © Suzanne Porter The blue plastic containers are for the hygiene education class

Patience has been teaching at the school for two years. All three of her children attend the school. She would not have considered moving to Warok if there had not been a well and latrines, because she has to put the health of her children first. This, of course, reinforces the message: without water and sanitation as the first steps out of poverty nothing else can follow. And again: Without access to safe water and sanitation, children will be kept out of any school built because they are ill or because they must help their mothers. And, equally important, no teacher will come to the community.


Warok school latrines © Suzanne Porter

Here’s the story of a different teacher, Justina, who lives in the small village of Takkas. She works as a primary school teacher in a larger nearby village – one with a well. Before Takkas got its own well, this is how Justina had to collect water.

justina demonstrates collecting water

Justina © Suzanne Porter

It would take her up to two hours a day to collect water from this stream. She had to take the young children with her. They were always late for school. She was always late for school, always tired, always feeling as if she’d fallen behind, guilty because the school children were not getting as much out of her lessons as they should. Now it takes her 15 minutes and no one’s late for school. She told me that before the hygiene education programme in the village her children were frequently ill. She estimates that she and her husband Maxwell, the headmaster of the local secondary school, were spending and in debt for about 5000 naira a year in medicine and treatment. Justina has always grown a little subsistence maize for her family. With the extra time she now has and the money they’re saving on medicine, she’s been able to take out and pay back three loans which have allowed her to expand to five acres of maize production. She employs five people to work the fields and is able to sell the surplus at the market. All the extra money is going towards higher education for her children. She and Maxwell are agreed that an educated population is needed to address Nigeria’s problems.

This is a sentiment with which I am sure Gordon Brown and any other individual or organisation focussing on global education would agree.

Without access to safe water and sanitation, extreme poverty will never be eliminated, childhood mortality rates will never be reduced, women and girls will never be able to achieve their full potential, universal primary education will never be achieved.

Get it right, guys. Start with the basics.

From → Columns

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