By FRANCIS UMENDU ODUPUTE
Thursday, 27th September, 2012. 10:00a.m or thereabouts. Abies (not her real name) has just been asked out of the class. She had been down with illness and has not been in school for about a week and half now. Her peasant mother said the nurses at the health centre, (not too far from the school premises) had diagnosed stubborn malaria. But it looks like there is more to it than meets the eyes.
Abies managed to show up in school today but, midway between her classes, she began to throw up. The “Arithmetic Auntie” (subject teacher) had asked the 6 year-old girl to go out of the class so as not to vomit inside the jam-packed classroom, nor possibly infect the other pupils.
She had barely reached the corridor when her bosom friend and playmate, Kate (not her real name) also in primary 2, met her in an unusual position and gestures curiously. “… your belle dey pain you?” Kate queried her friend in pidgin English, meaning “…is your belly aching?’’. But Abies was busy battling for her life. She held her stomach a second time in split seconds and resumed her vomiting. “Doe o!”
Kate quipped in vernacular, meaning “sorry!” “Your belle dey pain you?” She asked a second time, inquisitively. “No. E dey turn me and I dey feel cold”, Abies managed to reply at last but instantly resumed the battle for her health. Just then my camera’s lenses clicked to record the ensuing drama from my (investigative) “hide out”.
There is an apparent state of emergency here!
The rains this year have refused to stop and the daily misery, environmental /health hazards and pains borne by inhabitants and indigenes of this large community and their immediate neighbours in Egor Local Government Area, Edo State, South South Nigeria, are now a normal ritual and culture of sorts; and if the predictions by environment and climate change experts are anything to be taken serious, next year’s rains and its resultant flooding , erosion menace and health havoc should be worse than this year’s experience – just as this year’s rains and its resultant floods have eclipsed the 2011 flood furies in this part of the state.
Alas! Here at Evbuotubu Community, the worst hit victims are school children; and unless something urgent and drastic is done now by all relevant stakeholders, the gradually submerged school buildings may soon collapse on the helpless children and their teachers. Or, at least, an imminent epidemic might break out sooner or later. Why? How?
Minutes earlier, I was heading to the office of the headmistress of the second arm of the school, to book an appointment. The office was in the middle of a block of four classrooms, and walking across the first two classrooms to her office was very revealing.
Dutiful teachers were busy teaching and writing on the chalk boards or marking books on their tables while enthusiastic kids- some of whom sat on the muddy wet floor for want of chairs to sit on – listened with rapt attention while others were too busy copying notes to notice a visitor’s presence by the corridor.
As I approached the door of the school head, pungent smell filled the atmosphere around me. I looked around the erosion-ravaged premises and the large pools of water around, looking for any dead animal in the flood water.
Just then I noticed at the extreme end of the building- about half a pole from the school head’s office- an abandoned school latrine overtaken by weeds and flood water; (obviously out of use because of the erosion, the flood may have washed ashore the faeces inside the abandoned latrine onto the surface).
“Good morning, everybody!” I politely greeted two elderly ladies chatting away in the office. “Please is this the headmistress’ office?” The fair lady seated at the far end of the room immediately responded in affirmation and reciprocated my greeting in a friendly and receptive manner, while her dark complexioned colleague seated by my right hand just kept starring at me as if I was a tax collector or one of those “area boys”.…
“I am a journalist… and also a resident of this community. I use to have my child in this school but she has passed out…” I began introducing myself and my mission. “
I have been greatly concerned about the state of things in this school for a long time now but I decided to come and see what I can do to help draw the attention of those concerned in government to the plight of children in this school, even though I know there may have been various efforts regarding this in the past…”
“Did you say your child is in this school?” the fair lady queried me. “She used to be in this school but she passed out two years ago and now she is schooling in Asoro Grammar school” I replied and continued.
“I wanted to see the Headmistress to seek the cooperation of the school authority to carry out some research and investigation on the way this yearly flooding is impacting daily on the pupils and their academics, and to ask a few questions regarding what currently the school has done or is doing to make the government speed up efforts to keep their promise…”
While her mate just kept looking at me as though waiting to cross examine me, the fair lady cut in, “oh that’s good… you’re welcome. The headmistress just left some minutes ago to their office in town but she will soon be back. You can still speak with her (pointing to the dark lady), she’s the vice. My God! The same woman who has refused to give me a welcome look or say anything to me was the very one I have to speak to! I took pluck, anyway, and eyeballed her.
“You’re a journalist, what kind of cooperation are you expecting from us?” she asked intimidating and suspiciously. “Well, I would like the school authority to permit me to observe the experiences of the school children under this heavy flooding they learn in and to take some photographs, ask you people a few questions – like how is the daily flooding of the school premises affecting the children and teachers academically and health – wise; are mosquitoes and other insects affecting the pupils and teachers in the classes as a result of the flooding, is the situation affecting the attitude and input of teachers to work as well as their health? All these will help me in my report about what is going on here in this school”. I explained.
“Have you been in this community or you just came newly?” the Vice Headmistress queried me again. I was yet to answer when she dropped a bombshell, “you see that I have been very reluctant to talk all this while, because it’s like you’re a stranger here. You see, I’m somebody that doesn’t like wasting my time in what will never work”. At this point I became confused and curious. Is she implying I’m on a futile mission?
“Madam, how do you mean?” I politely asked. Then she opened up: “If you are old in this community you will know that the main problem of this school is the community and their leaders. In all my 33 years as a teacher I have been transferred to several communities. I have never seen a community that hates to develop.
Here you have a problem that has deteriorated for several years, and yet you couldn’t do anything about it as a community, instead you are adding to the problems. All they are good and fast at is recklessly selling lands without considering the impacts on the land. They keep selling off lands indiscriminately…”
She continued, “Anywhere in the world whenever you want to sell community lands, you first of all consider three basic things: you consider school, market and hospital – these basic essential needs of the people. But here, the community leaders and the people don’t care about all of these provided they get money.
And you were asking me you want to find out if mosquitoes bite pupils and if teachers are comfortable working under this condition. I think such a question should not arise at all. From my little knowledge of elementary science, we were taught the various reproduction stages of mosquitoes breeding and multiplying and we were taught that pools of standing water is the breeding ground for mosquitoes, how much more this river and lake of erosion that has taken over the entire school compound for several years.
“So, I’m surprised that such a question is coming from an enlightened person like you, a journalist for that matter. You also talked about how it is affecting teachers … you can see me now, I’m sitting here with hands folded. Because I’m feeling cold and you don’t have to be told that a major part of the reason is because the whole premises are filled with water. What do you expect? Anyway, we are willing to give you the cooperation you asked for but the headmistress, as you have been told, is not a round now. Except you wait or come back another time”.
The Deputy school head may be right – as I later got to discover, the flooding situation at the Evbuotubu Primary School has entered its 12thyear, but there is nothing to show that help is in sight for these children. Year after year they learn under mosquitoe-infested environment. Their entire school premises have been overtaken by flood and bushes. The school buildings are gradually submerged in flood water.
More embarrassing is the fact that without a single rebuke from any teacher or school head, these children daily urinate freely on the flood water and everywhere around the few plain spots of land that show up on the school compound once the flood water wanes a little; and they in turn swim in the infected water, eat food and snacks that fell on the infected ground, and inhale all the stench and putrid odors emanating from the accumulated urine (and excreta) all around the smelly environment.
They have no access to drinking water, no functional latrine and no playing field for recreation. And because children MUST play, they have turned private properties in adjoining streets/ roads and people’s compounds around the community to their playing fields and gadgets without any checks from the school authorities.
Obviously out of the view and control of the school authorities, many of these pupils get injured in the process, ill-influenced and some times even bullied or abused by some bad elements in the community with much impunity.
The negative impact of the situation on the health, psychology, self esteem of these children at Evbuotubu primary school in Egor Local Government Area of Edo state, Nigeria, and indeed the overall academic output and effectiveness of both teachers and pupils are underscored by the recurrent cases of pupils’ absenteeism truancy, illnesses like malaria and other water-related diseases such as that which Abies and many other children in the school daily have to contend with. Alas! Who really cares?
And how am I sure I’m not already embarking on yet another “fruitless” exercise, as the deputy school head has predicted?
The story is published under the pro poor WASH stories project implemented by the Water and Sanitation Media Network Nigeria, with the support of West Africa WASH Media Network, WaterAid, and Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council.