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“My daughter died because I did not know about these things”: The tragic potential of poor hygiene in Somalia

UNICEF/ Pflanz
© UNICEF Somalia/ 2011/ Mike Pflanz
Amina Hussein sits with her nine-year-old daughter Hinda, at their home in Guguh village where health workers are encouraging families to filter water to avoid illnesses which cause malnutrition and disease

By Mike Pflanz

GUGUH, Somaliland, 28 November 2011 – Amina Hussein, a mother with seven children aged between 3 and 18, is clearly a house-proud woman.

Her simple home, a dome of plastic sheeting, hammered-flat tins and colourful material stretched over a tree-branch frame, is meticulously swept.

Goods in her village shop next-door are arranged neatly. The wooden counter is polished to a shine. In her kitchen in a separate hut to the back, pots and pans are scrubbed clean.

“In the past, keeping a clean house, using clean water, throwing rubbish away properly, washing utensils, these are practices which did not exist,” she says.

“Then we learned how bad hygiene can cause illnesses like diarrhoea which can kill our children. That’s when things began to change.”

Today Amina is a smiling and welcoming woman, who guesses her age at 40.

But she pauses and frowns as she talks of how the lessons she has learned about links between better hygiene and good health came too late for one of her children.

“Four years ago, my daughter Yasmin, she was just two years old, fell sick and died,” Amina says quietly. “I am sure it was because of dirty water. I did not know about boiling water before drinking it, or about micro-organisms that can live in dirty water.

“Several times I say to myself that if I had known what I know now about water and hygiene, the situation might have been different.”

Amina lives in Guguh, a village more than 30km from the nearest tar road, high on the plains stretching back from the mountains rising from the coast of Somaliland.

What she “now knows” about treating water, washing hands, preparing food properly and disposing of waste came as part of a new effort trying to stop children falling sick with malnutrition.

The new focus is supported by UNICEF, with UKaid, and implemented in Somaliland by the Somali Red Crescent Society.


UNICEF/ Pflanz
© UNICEF Somalia/ 2011/ Mike Pflanz
Community health worker in Bossaso, Puntland, teaches mothers about the dangers of poor sanitation and hygiene.

In a corner of Amina’s home stands a blue bucket with a tap near its base. Inside is a solid clay pot, filled with water from the nearby reservoir, which is slowly filtering down, cleansed of major germs, into the bottom of the bucket.

This is one of many new ideas introduced to Amina’s home, and thousands like it across Somalia, as efforts to explain the links between hygiene, sanitation and better nutrition and health have expanded. 

“You can see we are filtering the water we use for drinking,” Amina said, passing a cup of clean water to her nine-year-old daughter, Hinda. 

“We make sure that it is kept separate from water for washing hands and clothes. We are also very careful to keep the house clean, to put rubbish far away, and to tell the children about washing their hands before eating or after visiting the toilet.

“We make sure we clean all utensils properly for cooking, and cover food to stop flies coming.” 

Today, she says her other children rarely if ever fall sick with the kinds of illnesses they used to suffer regularly.

One son was hit by a bout of diarrhoea recently because drought dried up the village’s water, and they were forced to use supplies from elsewhere, where hygiene standards are not so high.

“But he was treated with therapeutic food [a specially-formulated peanut paste for severe acute malnutrition], and because he is generally healthier, he has recovered well,” Amina adds.

For Guguh’s village chief, Ibrahim Hayd, adopting new ways to keep his community’s younger members healthy has had a huge impact.

“The situation has improved so much,” he said. “There used to be frequent outbreaks of diarrhoea and other illnesses, and the children would have to go far to the nearest town to find a doctor who could help.

“It is true that some of them died. Now there are many fewer cases even of illness.”



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