It’s a beautiful sunny afternoon. Queen and her sister Jennifer wash their clothes in the polluted Benue River that flows just a short distance from their home in the Wadatta area, a district in Makurdi, Benue state. Beside them two young girls happily take a bath, giggling and whispering to each other.
A few meters away, upstream, trying to hide behind a mound of rubbish, a young man squats, obviously defecating into the river, a regular practice in a quarter where open defecation is widely practiced because of the lack of adequate facilities. The girls, seemingly unperturbed by all this, happily splash away in the murky waters.
To my dismay, a water seller pulls up to fill up on water from the stream that he will most likely sell to an unsuspecting buyer in the guise that the water was drawn from a well.
In Wadatta, there is no pipe-borne water and sanitary conditions are dismal. Dozens die every year from cholera. This severe intestinal infection, associated with contaminated drinking water or food, causes serious diarrhea and vomiting, leaving young children particularly susceptible to death from dehydration.
Many are routinely rushed to the hospital because of typhoid fever, malaria and other diseases common in these living conditions. Indeed, urban slums are often not properly integrated into plans for municipal water and sanitation provision, a problem many groups have increasingly begun to draw attention to.
A young housewife cries out, “Please tell the government to bring water for us, oh! This year plenty people died of cholera.” Just like many others I encounter, her demands are laced with no anger or desperation, just the plea of another citizen resigned to life as they know it, oblivious to the fact that the leaders she helped put in office "owe" her this right to live in dignity and security.
So a popular indigenous proverb comes alive here: “For many live by the riverside but wash their hands with spittle!”
It is 6 a.m. and the morning finds me accompanying a group of people down the road. Our destination is the only water point in the area open to the public. Kelechi Chukwu a local furniture maker waits to fetch water from the bore hole provided by a small motel in the new GRA district; beside him is a young girl with buckets piled high almost as tall as herself. This is a daily routine--she must fill each bucket and carry it to her home at least a kilometer away. A little boy in his school uniform joins the growing queue.
Chukwu tells me in broken English, “I have lived here for 6 years and water has never run here, I don’t think they even laid pipes here.” Down the street is the expansive home of the deputy governor of the state, a fact I bring to his attention. Does he allow you to come fetch water at his house or have any of gone to demand he intervene?
He looks at me as if gauging whether I was joking or crazy. “How can we go and knock at the deputy governor’s house?” he asks incredulously. “Apart from that if we wake up, we eat, bathe, go to work, come back tired and worried about tomorrow, we don’t have time to confront our leaders.” A group of young men listening to our discussion shout out, “It’s every man for himself, oh!”
And I think just maybe this apparently prevailing attitude is the rationale that keeps the majority from moving forward, from holding our leaders responsible. Or perhaps they just don’t know they can have more, that they deserve better.
The town waits for the commissioning of the greater Makurdi water works, an impressive facility by many standards. However, enthusiasm has waned because while the water works are nearing completion, the government has still not awarded the contract for pipes to get the water from the plant to the people. One resident compared the situation to the savor of a freshly cooked meal.
“We can perceive the aroma of the food but we know we will not be served. Every administration comes with promises yet they all leave us thirstier than the last. We can only hope this time will be different.”