Goodbye river water; hello good health

By Linda Espenshade

Summary: The people of Tuli-Koma, Nigeria, are experiencing much better intestinal and skin health now that they are using drinking water from an MCC-supported borehole instead of a river.

Dec. 1, 2017

TULI-KOMA, Nigeria -- With a small metal bowl, Esther Zogi scoops dirty water out of a shallow puddle on the sandy banks of Kogi River in northeastern Nigeria. When the puddle is nearly empty, she flips the bowl and places it upside down on top of the sand and waits.

At the beginning of May's rainy season, the river is full and brown, carrying with it the reddish-brown soil that recent rains have washed into the river. Along with the soil comes the excrement of humans and animals.

After a minute or two, Zogi lifts the bowl, which seems to have sucked a fresh water out of the sand. She carefully scoops the water, now almost clear, into a bowl and then replaces the bowl in the sand.

If she were to repeat this water gathering process enough times, she would fill the bowl. Fortunately, she is just demonstrating how she and other women from Tuli-Koma village used to get water for drinking and cooking, bathing and laundry.

In 2015 Go International Mission, a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) partner, hired a drilling rig to plod along rutted roads, inch over ridges and crawl through gullies to get to Tuli-Koma. After a day of driving, rig operators drilled a 35- to 40-meter deep, narrow borehole through rocky soil, to reach the aquifer.

The villagers stayed up late at night to watch the process, celebrating together when the fresh, clean water finally came out of the pump. They no longer had to drink the river water that caused chronic skin rashes and intestinal illnesses.

On a sunny mid-May morning in 2017, women from the village clamor around the pump, vying with each other to be the first to show off their clean water to MCC and Go International visitors. Eventually the brightly dressed women line up and take turns pushing the pump handle up and down with such vigor it looks like they are dancing.

This borehole is one of 12 that Go International has drilled with MCC funding from 2014 to 2017. In addition, a latrine was built in each of the 12 villages to further protect water sources from being contaminated.

Go International trained a committee of villagers to maintain the pump and to collect money to fund repairs. In addition, the organization conducted community-wide sanitation and hygiene workshops and trained a committee to reinforce healthy practices, including the importance of using latrines.

The villagers in Tuli-Koma estimate about 1,000 people use water from the borehole . According to international standards, only 500 people should use each borehole, but because of the need, people from neighboring communities walk up to one hour to reach the borehole.

As one of many nonprofit organizations that are trying to meet the clean water needs that the Nigeria's government seldom provides or uses for political purposes, MCC is committed to working with Go International through 2020. Plans include building six more boreholes and 12 more latrines in north-eastern Nigeria.

The clean water's impact on health in Tuli-Koma and other places is encouraging.

Kennedy Pinari, a man who studied chemistry and dispenses medicine in the Tuli-Koma region, says the number of people coming to him for medicine to treat intestinal diseases has declined significantly.

Before the borehole was built, more than 10 people a day would come for medicine, he says, especially during the rainy season. Even though the medicine helped improve a condition temporarily, Pinari says he knew they would eventually come back again with the same problem because of the water they were drinking.

Now, he says he does not treat anyone from the village for water-borne disease, except for occasional cases of typhoid.

At the borehole, Justina Iliya hoists a plastic bucket of just-pumped water onto her head and walks a stone's throw to the house of her friend, Aishatu Amos.

She pours the water into a clay pot beside the front door, while Amos holds the lid she uses to cover the pot. Amos has learned from Go International that the plastic buckets need to be kept clean and the pot covered so that flies can't contaminate the water.

Amos says her children,who used to have diarrhea for long periods of time, no longer get have that problem now that she uses water from the borehole. In addition, she says, the rashes the whole family used to get with the river water are gone.

Using water from the borehole, which is close to the village, makes it easier to stay clean, says Iliya, proud that she sometimes bathes three times a day now. Instead of having to walk through the village, across the field and down the hill to collect river water bowl by bowl, the women can just walk to the well whenever they want.

Even their clothing is cleaner, Amos adds. "When you go to the river, sometimes you will even stain the white clothes because of the dirtiness of the water."

The women and other villagers are far less enthusiastic about latrines that feel unfamiliar and, to some people, repulsive. Getting used to everyone in the village going to the bathroom in the same place is a big cultural adjustment. Plus, leaving work in the fields to come back to the village to use the latrine is impractical, several villagers said.

Go International responds to these concerns by including community leaders in decisions regarding latrine placement and by teaching adaptations, such as digging a hole and covering excrement instead of leaving it in the open, says David Okpikpi of Go International.

Gradually, he says, communities are adapting to the latrines as they understand that open defecation leads to disease. Some families are building their own latrines instead of using a communal facility.

Another cultural practice that is just as ingrained is women cooking the evening meal while their husbands wait impatiently for their food. Convenient water has improved marriages, several men and women in Tuli-Koma said, because the nearby, clean water allows women to get food on the table faster after they and their husbands come home from working in the fields.

At least the women have clean water to drink while they cook.

"This water sometimes tastes sweet," Amos says. "When you drank the water of the river, you could taste the urine of the cow."

River water didn't satisfy your thirst either, adds Iliya. "When you take this one, it satisfies your thirst." Mennonite Central Committee: Relief, development and peace in the name of Christ


Linda Espenshade is MCC U.S. news coordinator.