Published January 25, 2013
Story by Clair O'Neil, for NPR's The Picture Show
Traditionally, water symbolizes life and renewal, but in Sierra Leone it is also a vehicle for epidemic and death — the focus of photographer Mustafah Abdulaziz's project "Water Is Gold," which documents the causes and effects of the country's recent cholera outbreak.
Last year, Sierra Leone experienced the worst cholera outbreak in its history, Abdulaziz writes for the Pulitzer Center, which funded his trip. There were 20,736 cases of cholera with 280 deaths since the beginning of 2012, he adds.
Abdulaziz spent most of his time in and around Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital, which, he writes, was "built to support less than half the current population of 2 million." The slums are overcrowded, unsanitary and sprawling — the perfect breeding ground for the disease.
"I met a family of 86 that occupies a 10-room flat with no bathroom," he writes. "Open defecation is common while public bathrooms are generally in poor order and are costly to use."
Municipal dumpsites are right in the city. People make their living sorting through trash (which includes human waste), scavenging for copper, or burning it. Imagine what happens to those sites during the rainy season when the city floods. Abdulaziz's images capture the immense scope and scale of the crisis — depicting the role of water, an essential element of life that cannot always be trusted.
It's a grim situation with no clear solution, though Abdulaziz hopes his images might play a role: "My overall goal with this project is to use photography to engage viewers to question our relationship with water and ... [its] importance to our future."