A cholera survivor turns sanitation champion in Yobe
After a near-death cholera experience, a youth leader mobilises members of his community against the disease in Damaturu, north-east Nigeria
As pellets of rain hit Damaturu, north-east Nigeria last Saturday, a group of young men and women lined the streets in Bulabulin, a densely populated community in the heart of the city.
Dressed in bright yellow overall and black boots, they cut budding weed and swept common areas. Nearby, the leader of the group, Mohammed Yusuf Yawale, worked tirelessly on a blocked drainage. For two hours, the youths cleaned the community, unmindful of the unrelenting rain.
“This is a type of rain that will not stop soon,’’ said Yawale, finally taking a break to speak. “If we don’t do it now, you will soon see the drainage overflowing with sewage into the streets. This is a lowland and sometimes, black floodwater finds its way into nearby homes or people step on it before entering their compounds. A child or an adult can become infected with cholera just like that,’’ he added.
Indeed, Bulabulin has a dark history of cholera epidemic, and in 2021, Yawale was almost victim.
I almost lost my life. That was when I knew that cholera was a dangerous disease and that a clean environment protects one against the disease. For me, it started with severe stomach cramps and uncontrollable vomiting. After cholera was confirmed, I spent days in the hospital fighting for my life,’’ he said.
For many children and families in north-east Nigeria, a cholera infection presents an additional layer of vulnerability. Along with Borno and Adamawa also in north-east Nigeria, Yobe State has been severely affected by protracted armed conflict. Many families displaced from remote communities fled attacks to live in Damaturu and other capital cities, leading to overcrowding and limited access to clean water and sanitation.
Children in the region have been hit the hardest. According to a 2021 report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), between 2013 and 2020, more than 90 percent of conflict-attributable deaths in north-east Nigeria, about 324,000, are of children younger than five.
To reduce the human cost of the conflict in the state, UNICEF, in partnership with the Yobe State Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Agency (RUWASSA), initiated weekly sanitation exercises in four high burden and cholera-endemic local government areas in the state in 2021. With funding from the Nigeria Humanitarian Fund (NHF) and the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), UNICEF supported communities in Bade, Potiskum, Damaturu and Nguru LGAs with rakes, wheelbarrows, shovels, brooms, parkers and other tools. Prior to the commencement of the project, the selected communities were fumigated for pest control.
Yawale is one of the youths leading the charge against cholera and other water-borne infections in these communities. According to him, recovering from cholera has taught him the importance of a clean environment.
“My experience with cholera made me to realise that health is truly wealth. If I could have such a bad experience with cholera, imagine how much effect it would have on children. I am ready to keep my seven children safe from cholera. This is the reason why I don’t joke with the weekly sanitation exercise,’’ said Yawale.
Collective sanitation effort in Bulabulin has helped to keep gutters unclogged and free of stagnant contaminated water. More importantly, the community, which was hitherto cholera-endemic has been free of the disease in recent months.
There are other unintended benefits. According to Yawale, the weekly sanitation exercise helps community members to bond even as they stay disease-free.
“I exchange banters with my friends as I work. We don’t see it as a chore. We are working to protect our children and community safe cholera. Every Saturday, you will see everyone assemble in the house of the community head to take either a rake, broom or spade to work. After two hours, we return the tools to the community head for safe keeping and continue our day,’’ he said.