The morning sun is rising at Abagana Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp, Benue state. Eunice Gabriel sits outside a classroom hall, peeling cassava with her neighbours. Each one she peels is dropped inside a container, to be processed.
"Sometimes the government feeds us, other times, people come to donate food," Gabriel, 38, said. "But right now, nothing is coming from the government again. Even this cassava you see here was given to us by someone. I'm preparing it into dried flour so I can use it to feed my children. We have not eaten since morning," she said, cutting off a stick attached to the cassava.
Thousands of women like Gabriel are in IDP camps across the state. A year ago, Gabriel and thousands of other villagers were displaced by armed herdsmen who in January 2018, reportedly invaded several villages in the state and razed homes, leaving over 100 people dead, mostly farmers.
These attacks resulted in a humanitarian crisis with more than 300,000 persons currently displaced and living across seven IDP camps, according to the State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) providing relief materials. According to the International Crisis Group, herder-farmer conflicts in Nigeria have claimed more lives than the Boko Haram insurgency currently raging in the North East.
Gabriel, a yam and maize farmer, narrowly escaped the herdsmen with her husband and seven children from Guma - one of the local government councils in the state badly affected by the attacks. "They (herdsmen) took us unawares and destroyed our farms," she said. "We luckily escaped from them but some of our neighbours were killed both in the farm and at home. They destroyed everything we had and we cannot go back."
Eating rats and snakes for a meal
In place of meat or fish, the IDPs resort to eating rats and snakes which they hunt from the nearby bush. Every afternoon, Monica Udoji, 35, asks one of her children, 9-year-old Ndem, to join his friends in the hunt for rats which she then prepares for her five children and husband. "It is very delicious, and we have been using it to prepare our food," she says of the rat meat. "This one here is the male and it is more delicious than the female," she continues, displaying a stainless steel plate full of rats.
"We have been displaced from our ancestral homes," said Phillip Usartse, the Abagana Camp IDPs Chairman. "We are now living under the care of the government and other NGOs to survive. It has been very difficult for us." Usartse said the displacement extended to neighbouring Nassarawa state. When the attacks started, locals from Benue state residing in Nassarawa were also driven out of the state. At Mbawa, another IDP camp in the state, Athanasius Shinge, 65, has fifteen children to cater for.
"Sometimes, my children and wife go to the market to pick grains from where traders come to sell. When they bring it home, they sieve it and prepare food with it," he says, watching his daughters as they roast one of two snakes that were caught in the bush earlier that day.
"We want to go back to our communities," Usartse says. "We want to continue with our normal lives because it is not easy for someone who has been taking care of himself to be depending on other people or the government for food. We are not even satisfied with our stay here and there is nothing you will give us here that can satisfy us. Our major goal now is to go back to our villages to continue our normal lives."
NGO Coalition comes to the rescue with focus on nutrition
Last year, a coalition of 58 NGOs decided to intervene to provide solutions for the basic needs of the displaced persons - food, water and shelter. Under the supervision of Community Links and Human Empowerment Initiative, local NGOs are collaborating with foreign organisations like the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
"Malnutrition was top on our list," says Helen Teghtegh, the Executive Director of Community Links and Human Empowerment Initiative and supervisor of the 58 NGOs working on malnutrition in the camps. "We have been helping and using our platforms to tell the world to intervene."
"ICRC came on board and aside from our own data, they did a revalidation and carried out an assessment on malnutrition. One of the key things they distribute among IDPs are specially prepared meals and nutrients for children," she said. "Their first distribution was not enough but they came back to redistribute. She said the interventions have helped to address the issue of malnutrition giving a lot of relief to the camps.
Teghtegh said they got a report last year that the IDPs were starving because SEMA was hoarding food in their stores and warehouses. The coalition stepped in and called on SEMA to start distributing the food, and SEMA did. And when the distribution finished with nothing left in the stores, they used social media platforms to do crowdfunding for the IDPs. "These steps helped reduce the suffering in the camps especially malnutrition," Teghtegh said. To ensure an equitable sharing formula during the distribution of food and relief materials, the coalition divided the IDPs into committees. Each group consists of 40 households. When food or relief materials arrive, the committees collect and distribute to each household. That way, there is no diversion and everyone gets food.
Describing the work of the coalition as challenging, Teghtegh said, that while a few people have moved away from the camps and settled in host communities, an updated data shows that 400,000 IDPs still remain, up from 300,000 last year. "This is aside from new births because we are having pregnant women give birth almost every day in each camp. So we have new people to cater and provide relief for but we are not relenting," she said.
The strategy adapted by the NGO coalition in Benue state could work elsewhere where there humanitarian crises exist. In Borno state, for example, a similar approach can be adopted to help IDPs who suffer from malnutrition and other challenges. By NGOs working on relief efforts in different areas, forming a coalition to coordinate relief and help put pressure on the government to provide services for IDPs and collaborating with foreign development partners like UNICEF, WHO and ICRC, it becomes easier to provide the necessary needs for IDPs.
This can help reduce the cases of malnutrition in the camps, so that IDPs like Gabriel, hoping for the insurgency to end so she and her family can go back home to their farm, will still be able to enjoy healthy, nutritious meals.
Patrick Egwu is an award-winning freelance journalist based in Nigeria who reports on global health, education, religion, conflict and other development issues in Nigeria and sub-Saharan Africa. He has been published in African Arguments, FT's This is Africa, Ozy, BRIGHT Magazine, and IJNet, among others.