How Mariam, first female borehole mechanic in northeast Nigeria supports children with clean water
For Mariam Ibrahim, the first female borehole mechanic in Biu, north-east Nigeria, a typical day starts with prayers and getting her three youngest children ready for school. That done, the 35-year-old changes to her workwear, laces her boot and dons a protective head covering.
She then steps out into communities to repair faulty handpump boreholes.
“I have been a borehole mechanic since 2020 and I have repaired over 70 handpump boreholes in Biu,’’ says Mariam, a mother of four.
“The most common borehole fault I have observed around here is damage to the cop rubber washer. It is a material that hardens and gets broken with time. It is a simple thing to detect and replace but it could also be the reason why families will be without clean water for weeks or months,’’ she says.
From Madiya to Drakwatam settlements, Mariam and her toolbox are familiar sights to locals in Biu communities. She is one of six Local Area Mechanics (LAMs), trained by UNICEF and partner, Tulsi Chanrai Foundation (TCF) to repair and maintain motorized and hand pump water facilities in Biu.
More than 75 per cent of people in Borno State drink water contaminated with Escherichia Coli, a group of bacteria. Ninety-four per cent of residents in the state do not have access to basic water supply and hygiene services. Through the Access to Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (ASWA II) project of the Directorate-General for International Cooperation (DGIS) of the Netherlands Government, UNICEF has provided tools for the mechanics to ensure an undisrupted access to safe water for children and families affected by conflict in Biu.
Touted as the second largest town in Borno State, Biu hosts a large population of displaced families fleeing conflict from hard-to-reach settlements. Thirteen years after armed conflict broke out in Nigeria’s north-east region, more than two million people are still displaced without sustainable livelihood opportunities and access to essential services. As households struggle to regain livelihood opportunities and rebuild their lives, the inability to access safe water increases the vulnerability of children to die from preventable diseases and reduces the resilience of households.
With her skills, Mariam is helping children and families to have a sustained access to clean water and good health. Rather than have faulty boreholes littering communities and adding no value to the health of children and women, Mariam and other mechanics have been trained to repair and maintain boreholes constructed or rehabilitated under the ASWA II project for a token.
For their remuneration, the mechanics are paid from contributions made by members of WASH Committees established by UNICEF and the Borno State Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Agency (RUWASSA) in local communities. For every water project constructed under the ASWA II project, signposts are erected with contacts of LAMs servicing the immediate community displayed on them.
“Sometimes what is needed to fix a borehole is as little as N1000 (about $2), yet you see families resorting to fetching water from the stream or relying on water vendors. This increases the risk of waterborne diseases and child mortality,’’
Yet, Mariam acknowledges that her work is challenging, particularly in accessing hard to reach communities in Biu.
“It is difficult accessing some communities especially on market days. Commercial tricycles would be busy, and I would have to walk some kilometers to reach these communities. But my male colleagues have been supportive. They encourage me all the time,’’ she says.
Mariam adds that she is comfortable with her work, despite it being a male-dominated vocation. “I don’t even see the work from a gender angle. To me, it is a normal job just as trading or tailoring. It is a peculiar job though, I have to deal with being drenched in water and climbing ladders to reach overhead tanks,’’ she says.
Yet, Mariam says she enjoys the job and feels privileged to be the first female mechanic in Biu and across north-east Nigeria.
“I am a mother and I always want to see children healthy and happy. Without access to clean water, this is not possible. The job also puts food on my table and something small to save towards my children’s education,’’ she adds.