24 April 2014

Nigeria: Makurdi's Mothers - Benue River Can't Quench Their Thirst

Makurdi — It's crisis in the state of Benue in north-central Nigeria. Only a few kilometres from the state capital Makurdi, Fulani herdsmen are making daily attacks on defenceless homes, killing many with their sporadic bullets. Women, children and the aged are being displaced from their ancestral homes and into makeshift refugee camps.

It was in October 2012 when I reported from Makurdi about life at the Wurukum Camp. People of different tribes were all gathered here to escape the one thing they never needed: the water released from Cameroon's Lagdo Dam.

This time, the enemy is Fulani herdsmen killing and maiming. At the time, I talked to many of the camp's pregnant women and now I am hoping to track some of them down to see how they were doing.

The situation at St. Mary's Primary School, North Bank, in Makurdi is far worse than what I witnessed at Wurukum. Hundreds of people have been raked off their ancestral homes by Fulani herdsmen so their farmland could be used for cattle grazing.

One man claims that the military and police are giving the herdsmen cover to shoot and kill his people. But when people tried to defend themselves, the military shot them down. He has already lost a son. Meanwhile, no one is calling for an investigation into these claims.

Camp situation

Camp Secretary Jacob Adoh is a man in his 40s wearing a dirty white T-shirt promoting International Toilet Day - very relevant since the camp only has six toilets and pit latrines. He's being followed by his son crying for food. Other children are playing or cooking rice in small tomato tins.

"As of 20 March 2014, the population was around 850 people, but people are coming every day so we have more than a thousand now," says Adoh.

Of this group, approximately three-quarters are children. Of the over one hundred women in the camp, the majority are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Water shortage and dying children

The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) supplies the camp with 11,000 liters every three days, according to camp chairman Fidelis Zungwe Atule.

This works out to approximately four litres a day per person - certainly not enough for drinking, bathing, cooking and washing. But even if more water could be supplied, the camp lacks containers to store the water in.

Chairman Atule says three children have already died - one just yesterday - and many more are sick. The parish priest at St. Mary's Parish, North Bank, has provided some medical attention, but Tule says that they need much more help if they are to avoid a breakout of cholera or diarrhoea.

The old wives of Daudu

The main deserted village of this crisis area is Daudu, located a few kilometres from Abuja towards Makurdi. While the village's namesake died in the mid-1950s, two of his wives still lived there, along with dozens of his descendants.

The group came to St. Mary's camp in the third week of March. The men went back to see if they could get food from their deserted farms, leaving the women here.

Mama Uzaany was Daudu's wife number one and after they were married him in the 1930s, they had at least six children together. Her oldest son is around 75, according to Adoh, but she is here with over 40 of her children, their wives and grandchildren.

When I ask Mama Uzaany how old she is, she jokes: "My years are funny. I'm 15." But since she recalls seeing His Royal Highness Tor Tiv Makir Zakpe (who was installed in the 1940s), she is more likely to be around 90.

She claims to only need a small amount of money to buy garri, rice and Coca-Cola - the last, she says, is her "nemba one" need.

Daudu's wife number two was Mama Nagbaan. They only had two children, both of whom are now dead. When I ask her why she looks so young, she says: "It's because I never gave birth to many children." Even though surrounded by a large extended family, she still feels lonely because her own grandchildren are elsewhere.

More expectant mothers

Originally from Ogoja, Mama Uzaanyi's granddaughter in-law, Mary Daudu, 22, married into the Daudu family, just as her eldest sister Cecilia before her.

Mary is the mother of one child and seven months pregnant with another. Before the crisis, she was attending an ante-natal clinic, but she now suffers from untreated symptoms.

She tells me about her swollen legs and waist pain, as the stench of a nearby toilet becomes almost unbearable.

Mary's sister Cecilia is breastfeeding her nine-month-old son; she interrupts to say something to Mary in their language. She wants to tell me that her first child never breastfed: "So maybe I have a problem ... "

A daughter-in-law of Mama Uzaanyi, Mnena Ume Daudu, 30, is a mother of five, eight months pregnant and suffering from dehydration. Her husband has returned to the village of Daudu, but still comes by the camp.

"I can't stand upright, I feel sharp pains in my lower abdomen, and I usually bend to feel better," she says.

Thirty-year-old Sati Terwase Daudu is another daughter-in-law of Mama Uzaanyi. She has two children and is seven months pregnant. She has symptoms of whooping cough. While she has been to an ante-natal clinic during previous pregnancies, it has not been possible for this one.

"My husband and I travelled to a remote Yoruba forest and I couldn't access any hospital there," she says. And while they returned from their journey last December, "my husband has never agreed to take me to hospital".

Clearly, life at Wurukum Camp will continue, whether its residents are ready or not. With no adequate medical care and insufficient food, the situation for expectant mothers is really bad. As I set out to visit six other camps in Makurdi, alone, to report on more internally displaced persons, I won't forget about Mama Uzaanyi and her growing clan.

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