Wednesday 1st September 2010, 10:30am. The coordinator of our mother and child centre in Goronyo called. She had received reports of 200 deaths in nearby Kagara village, caused by flooding. The immediate needs were shelter, food and water.
By 1:30pm I was half way there, with a 10-ton truck laden with tents, water tanks, pumps, cooking equipment and blankets. Half way there, but stuck in a traffic jam caused by a cow sitting in the middle of the road on top of its broken leg. Hundreds of drivers sounded their horns and shouted at the single policeman who had the unenviable tasks of sorting out the situation. We waited in the heat, just as people somewhere up ahead waited for us.
We arrived at the MSF base in Goronyo by 3 and collected our water and sanitation specialist. We continued on to Kagara, turning off the main road onto a smaller one bordered by fields submerged under floodwater. I had been skeptical of the initial reports of 5,000 displaced people, but as hundreds passed us I started to realize that this was big.
On the right side of the elevated road, the water was chest-deep. As we approached the village, we could see collapsed houses and people wading with their belongings on their heads. In the village, the water flowed ankle deep over the road, and we only knew where to drive by looking at the people on either side of the vehicle.
At a high school allocated for temporary shelter, we saw around 1,000 people sheltering in about 25 different buildings. The school’s geography teacher had assumed command and showed us the facilities: 40 pit latrines and two water tanks fed from boreholes, one with a solar-powered pump, one connected to a broken generator.
It was getting dark. Time to make an assessment and decide what to do. With shelter, latrines and food all at hand, access to clean water was clearly the priority.
We returned the next day to find that water levels in the village were even higher. A tanker had distributed only brown river water, nobody seemed to be using the latrines, and the school’s water taps were dry. The number of people, goats and sheep had more than doubled, and the ground was covered in livestock excreta.
Installing a water tank on top of a 1.2 metre sand platform was a challenge. Our small team and a pickup truck struggled in the heat to move 15 tons of sand to create a platform. For the guys observing the Ramadan fast, not eating or drinking, the struggle was unimaginable. By the end of the day the platform was about 30 cm high.
By Friday, some additional MSF staff had returned from a vaccination survey to reinforce our team. I tasked them with a census, and we realized we had 5,500 people sheltering at the school.
I was invited to a meeting with the local authorities. “Please try to find where we can buy some water,” I pleaded to our driver as I dashed into the meeting, pulling off my muddy boots. Inside, the community leader sat in an armchair and everyone else sat on the floor in their elegant robes.
As they talked in Hausa I worried how long this would take, conscious of the time pressure. When I was introduced I apologized for my appearance — having helped push the pickup out of the mud earlier, I had a nice mud spray up to my waist. They smiled, and I relaxed as I realized they knew MSF and liked our hands-on, fast moving approach.
I explained my priorities and asked for their assistance with water supply and community health education. I finished just as the call to prayer began, the perfect opportunity to get back to work.
I returned to find the water tanker we had hired stuck in the mud. It was going to be a tough day.
The team continued shoveling sand to build the stand for the water tank, and made a fence out of barrier tape and sticks to facilitate a distribution of mosquito nets and blankets to all the mothers. Two local guys announced our plans and within five minutes almost 700 mothers were pressed against our flimsy fence. As the first person entered our enclosure, the others decided they weren’t prepared to wait and pushed down the fence. At the same time, a torrential downpour began. We had to push the crowds back as tensions escalated.
Our weak fence, our slow distribution, and our lack of crowd control were a failure, and I reluctantly agreed with the team that we had to stop before someone got injured. Fortunately, the crowd didn’t want to wait in the rain and went home. We scrambled to cover the blankets with a ground sheet.
I went back to base soaked, bitterly disappointed and tired. That night, we made plans for a safer distribution.
I woke the next day determined to complete the distribution successfully. This time we got permission to use a small fenced-in area, and we created a corridor around it. We employed 10 crowd controllers, loaded our supplies inside the fence and got the blankets and nets to the people who needed them. Passing women smiled and thanked me as they passed with their blankets, and I smiled back.
We completed the tank stand at 5 pm, arranged security, and negotiated with the tanker driver to fill the tank with clean water, before our tired team started the journey back to Sokoto.
I started texting my thanks to the various people who had made our journey possible, and realized that I hadn’t eaten or had a pee since 6 am. My head started to spin. As we neared our base I started to worry that I couldn’t walk or speak properly. “Take me home,” I said to the driver, relieved that I could still talk. Dressed in filthy clothes and having run on adrenaline and cola for three days, it was time to eat, wash and rest.