My hometown, Amfani, is located in the central western part of Niger State. Even though it is a small village, it serves as a melting pot for trade within Magama Local Government. From the main Amfani market, you can see the banks of river Niger less than a kilometre away. The country’s main source of hydro-electric power, Kainji Dam, is ten kilometres south.
The river Niger has provided a source of livelihood for my kinsmen and ancestors over decades. It is our source of water. During the dry seasons, local farmers depend on the river for irrigation purposes. This water source also enables local artisans to mine for gold. Without this significant source of water, my village may cease to exist.
Everyone calls me Bebe, however, my parents named me Biaratu at birth. My mother’s best friend gave me the nickname Bebe, and it stuck. She did not have children, and she loved me like her own. She is close to my family and would also bring presents for me.
My father, Usman, is an artisanal gold miner, while my mother, Zulai, sells food at the local Amfani market. I am the oldest of four children. I have two brothers, Haruna and Suleiman. The baby of the family is Binta.
Three years ago, my cousin Amina developed a rare medical ailment. Her parents were unable to afford hospital bills and so were forced to depend on local herbs and any other cheap means of treatment. Needless to say, her condition worsened. She could not eat adequately and even when she did (which was rare), she would throw up. She continued to lose weight and her skin color changed. Other noticeable symptoms included a fever that refused to subside despite the daily ingestion of Panadol.
All efforts proved to be futile, and nine months later, Amina passed away. This was devastating to my entire family and friends. Amina was full of life; she had an infectious laugh that could make anyone feel warm and welcome. She was an amazing cook and I looked forward to eating meals that she prepared anytime I paid her parents a visit.
I was fourteen years old when Amina passed away. Her death left an indelible mark on me. She was three years older than me and I looked up to her. She was the big sister I never had. I admired the way she dressed and did her hair. She was beautiful and got attention from all the young men in the village. However, she maintained her dignity and never allowed any of those miscreants to come close.
Two weeks after Amina fell sick, a friend of mine from school, Shehu, also fell ill. Just like Amina, his parents could not afford the expensive medical bills and had to resort to local treatment, which hardly had any effect. Shehu had constant diarrhoea and lost a lot of weight. There was no cure in sight for Shehu’s ailment. Not too long after Shehu fell sick, there were several reports of sick children in other parts of the village. Fear reigned in our village.
As is typical of people from my part of the country, the sickness was attributed to an evil source. “Maybe someone laid a curse on our people,” some old folks thought. “Maybe the gods are annoyed at us,” others would say, disregarding the fact that Islam has been our religion for over a hundred years.
There were no hospitals in town. The closest treatment center was kilometres away at New Bussa. To make matters worse, you would have to pay N1000 before the medical staff would attend to you. This amount of money is a small fortune, and my people could not afford it. Even when they had the money, to them it did not make sense to spend such a huge amount on medical treatment. Rather, they would pay the local herbalist N100 to prepare a so-called local concoction for the sick to consume. In most cases, if not all, the local remedy did not work.
At the peak of the disease outbreak, more than 60 children had fallen sick in Amfani. The situation seemed gloomy and there was no solution in sight. The cries and pleas of our parents and older men and women to the local politicians fell on deaf ears. My people were losing hope. To make matters worse, the skin of sick children would start to peel once it lost its coloration. Some parents did all they could to keep their children from being exposed to sunlight, thinking this was the source of the ailment.
The remoteness of my village did not help matters. It was far away from civilization and there were no good roads leading to and from Amfani. The roads were untarred and unmotorable. During rainy seasons, they were muddy and flooded, making them almost impassable. Due to road inaccessibility, both non-profit and government aid was nonexistent in my village. We had to depend on our own resourcefulness and whatever supplies came from villagers who had travelled to nearby big cities.
The Illness continued to spread within the village, affecting children for the most part. All efforts proved useless. Being a predominantly Muslim community, our people prayed every day for a cure. In line with Islamic customs, prayer was five times a day. Ramadan fasting was adhered to along with all customary rites that came with it. One thing is for sure, God will always provide an answer for his faithful ones.
It was a sunny day, and the warmth felt good. We had had a cold Harmattan season and everyone looked forward to the warm days that followed. I had just left my school, heading back home on foot as always. My school was about a kilometer from my house. We had just three classrooms shared by students in junior secondary through senior secondary classes. Sharing classrooms with different class tiers was an arrangement made necessary by the lack of teachers within the school. A good portion of school hours was spent in the open air either playing with my peers, clearing brushes in the surrounding area, or engaging in arts and crafts.
On this day, I was in high spirits, partly because of the warm sun and partly because Ramadan fasting was coming to an end in a few days. I could not wait to celebrate Eid al-Fitr. I looked forward to this day every year. There was always an abundance of food and everyone seemed to be in a good mood.
My mother had a tradition of preparing white rice with tomato stew and fired chicken for the celebration. For some funny reason, her rice during the Sallah celebration tasted better than at any other time. I loved helping her prepare the meals. As a teenage girl, it was expected that I helped my mother out in the kitchen whenever I returned from school and while on break from school. This was not a problem for me, as I looked forward to helping her out. It afforded me the opportunity to learn and acquire cooking skills, which I knew would come handy whenever I got married and started raising my children.
My mother’s kitchen was a tiny hut at the back of our house. Cooking fire was produced from firewood that was collected and stored by my father. He always made sure we never ran out of firewood. He was a hardworking man indeed.
When I arrived home and went through the front door of our house, I noticed nice-looking travel luggage in the corner of the room. Immediately I knew we had a guest from out of town. Amfani villagers did not own this type of fancy travelling bag, as we could not afford it. There are more essential things to spend money on.
My curiosity got the better of me and I glanced around the room and into the other room, but could not find anyone. I heard voices coming from the back end of our compound. I could hear my mother speaking and laughing loudly with another older female. I could not wait to discover who the stranger was.
I dashed out to the backyard and saw an elegantly-dressed lady. She had on traditional attire that was well-designed and looked expensive. Her shoes and handbags matched her attire also. Both ladies turned their heads my way. When she saw me, the elegantly-dressed lady ran towards me and gave me a big hug, beaming, telling me how much I had grown since the last time she had seen me.
I was in shock. I did not know who she was. I had never seen her before, but I knew she was family one way or the other. My mother saw the look on my face and came over to make introductions.
“Bebe,” she said, “this is your Daddy’s younger sister Asabe. She just arrived from Lagos to celebrate Eid al-Fitr with us.”
Oh, it all made sense now. I had heard so much about Aunt Asabe. She left for Lagos when I turned one and had never returned to visit. Obviously, I was not expected to recognize her. Aunt Asabe was so elated to see me that she kept hugging me over and over again. She was shocked that I had grown into a lovely young teenager. Her joy and admiration towards me were quite apparent.
After the joyous introductions and greetings, she sat me down to ask about school and life in Amfani from a teenager’s perspective. I ended up giving her a comprehensive account of every year of my life from as far back as I could remember up till the current day. She wanted to know what type of clothes I wore, what type of make-up I put on (I did not know anything about makeup). She wanted to know what sports I played (we never played sports in Amfani). She most definitely was a complete city woman. She did not show signs of having ever lived in Amfani. She was different from us all in a good way, or more like in a modern way. Her presence was a breath of fresh air. Her spoken Hausa language had a touch of a southern accent, which I admired. I enjoyed every minute I spent with her and I could not wait to learn about her and from her.
Mother interrupted our catch-up session by announcing that it was time to eat. “Bebe, I can see that you are having fun getting to know your Aunt and likewise, she is enjoying your presence. However, she needs to take a bath and eat dinner.”
On that note, Aunt Asabe and I paused our small party, and she went to take a bath in preparation for dinner. I helped Mother finish dinner preparations and set out the plates and bowls on the main room floor where the family ate dinner.
By this time, Father had returned home and was ecstatic when he heard that his younger sister was in town. Dinner was extra delicious and filled with interesting conversation. Baba, Mama, and Aunt Asabe talked about the good old days.
Both my parents informed Aunt Asabe of the changes that had occurred over the years since she left the village. It was shocking to find out that a significant number of villagers had left for bigger cities. This group of people hardly ever returned, and when they did, it was for a short visit after many years, just like Aunt Asabe.
After dinner, the conversation continued. Aunt Asabe talked about her life in Lagos and the government job she now had. She had enrolled in university and graduated with a degree in Microbiology. Her job involved public health and inspecting certain areas of the city. To me, she came across as being very smart and knowledgeable. I silently prayed to be like her when I become older.
The adults continued to talk late into the night. I sat beside Aunt Asabe and listened with much fascination. When it was time to go to bed, Aunt Asabe made me promise that I would give her a tour of the village the next day, including stopping by the homes of family and friends. I was excited. I could not wait to show off my aunt to the entire village.
Fortunately, due to the Eid al-Fitr celebrations, there was no school the next day. My siblings, Haruna, Sulieman, Binta, and I decked ourselves out in our best attire in celebration of Eid al-Fitr. We followed my father to the village prayer grounds for the Salah prayers. The prayer grounds were crowded, as expected during festival, and everyone seemed to be well-dressed and quite happy.
After prayers, my father spent a few minutes chit-chatting with his friends, while the kids played and teased each other. I overheard my father discussing the arrival of his sister with some of his friends, or should I say bragging about his sister with some of his friends, and one of them asked if she was married. My father responded in the negative.
In Amfani, its typical for most young girls to marry around the age of 16 years. Aunt Asabe was different in a good way. Thanks to her big city exposure and education, at age 30 she was still not married, but I was quite sure she had a suitor. I had seen a picture of a nice-looking man she carried in her handbag and I meant to ask her about it later today.
The prayer ground chit-chat came to an end and Father, my siblings, and I returned home. Mother and Aunt Asabe were almost done cooking by the time we arrived. Luckily for me, I did not have much to do in the kitchen. Lunch was even more delicious than the previous night’s dinner and there was so much variety to eat. Following a short rest after lunch, Aunt Asabe and I began our planned tour of the village.
“Aunty, I saw a picture of a man in your handbag, do you mind me asking who this person is?” I asked not sure of what her reaction would be.
My aunt beamed with a beautiful smile and said, “I am glad you asked, Bebe, that is my fiancé, Abdul.”
“Aunty, what is a fiancé?” I asked.
That was a new word to me. I had learned the word finance in school and this sounded the same to me. At this point I became confused. Aunt Asabe went on to explain that Abdul was her boyfriend who she has agreed to marry, that is, after he asked. I got it now. She went on to explain that this is the reason why she returned to Amfani, so as to inform my parents and grandparents of her intentions to get married, and also to prepare for Abdul’s visit to the village a few months from now. That was good news to me. I was so jubilant! I was looking forward to meeting Abdul and also to see my aunt get married. We continued our tour of the village.
Our first stop was Uncle Hassan and Aunty Fatima’s house (my cousin Amina’s parents). They were excited to see Aunt Asabe. There were shouts of joy, and the neighbors gathered around to welcome her. At some time during the welcome celebrations, Aunt Asabe asked where Amina was. My Aunt Fatima began to sob, while Uncle Hassan pulled Aunt Asabe to the side to explain the demise of Amina as a result of an unknown sickness.
Upon receiving the bad news, Aunt Asabe was devasted. She began to cry, but stopped after a few tears. She asked questions about the sickness, symptoms, and treatment protocols. It was evident that she knew a lot about the causes and spread of diseases. Her questions kept coming and my aunt and uncle did their best to answer them. They told her about other kids in the village who had similar infections. In all, over a dozen teenagers and children had passed away from the strange illness. At this point, Aunt Asabe became visibly upset. However this did not last long. She indicated that she needed to get to the bottom of the problem. She requested to cut her visit short and return back to my parents’ house.
During the walk back, she did not say a word. I could see she was in deep thought. Luckily, my father was home when we arrived. Aunt Asabe went straight to her room and got a writing pad and pen, jotted down a page full of notes, and requested to speak to my father. She asked him some additional questions regarding the village sanitation, source of water, and food processing. He did his best to answer, and she came up with more questions and continued to take notes. After two hours of asking question and brainstorming with my father, she requested that he give her a ride around the village on his motorcycle.
I was a bit disappointed that our village tour was cut short, but I knew it was for a good reason and did not complain.
Father and Aunt Asabe returned back home after four hours of riding around the village investigating the cause of sudden illness. Aunt Asabe had taken more than five pages of notes detailing all she had seen and observed around the village. In addition, she and my Father visited all the families that had lost a loved one. Aunt Asabe spent the next hour going through her notes, analyzing the data and information.
Later that evening, she gave my parents a brief summary of her findings. She had come to the conclusion that the village water source had been contaminated with some toxic compounds, possibly from the gold mining sites. Aunt Asabe explained the enormity of this problem to my parents. According to her, most artisan farmers made use of a toxic compound called mercury to purify gold. This substance could eventually find its way into the water table and the nearby streams and rivers, including the large river Niger. She further explained that based on the data she had gathered and evidence she had seen, the deceased village children somehow had come in contact with water contaminated with mercury or mercury by-products.
In addition, she explained that fish caught in the river might not be consumable due to possible mercury contamination. It was the same for farm products harvested from farmland watered through irrigation.
Aunt Asabe was determined to get to the bottom of the problem. Before going to bed that night, she informed my parents of her plans to travel to Minna the next day with the intent of informing the State Health Ministry and possibly returning to the village with State Health officials.
Very early the next morning, Father took Aunty Asabe to Kontagora on his motorcycle so she could board a taxi travelling to Minna. The journey to Kontangora was five hours via motorcycle, and he did not return until sundown. My family prayed for Aunt Asabe’s safe journey and favor with the health officials in Minna. Her tone from the previous day sounded very optimistic and she gave us hope for a solution to the problem.
Once again, we returned to our regular village lifestyle. Fortunately, school was on an Eid al-Fitr break and we the kids had enough time to play around the village. Word of the contaminated water source had spread around the whole village and every family was taking major precautions like boiling their water before drinking and prohibiting children from swimming in the rivers. There was no doubt about Aunt Asabe’s influence on the villagers. All of a sudden, I became well known amongst my peers. My friends wanted to know what Aunt Asabe was like and if she was going to bring a cure for the ailment. I enjoyed the attention and kept informing them of her qualifications and her determination to solve the problem.
After eating lunch, my siblings and I were playing in the front entrance to my house when we noticed a white van parked about a hundred yards from our house. Right away we knew Aunt Asabe had returned as promised with government officials. She was the first to alight from the van, with her arms wide open to hug my siblings and I as we ran to welcome her. With her was another lady and four gentlemen. She did not hesitate to introduce her nieces and nephews to the officials, who had on white overalls.
At this point, my parents had stepped outside and were watching from a distance. The Minna party approached them and introduced themselves. Aunt Asabe explained that the State Health Commissioner himself had hosted her and mandated a team of water engineers and public health officials to attend to and resolve the health issues plaguing Amfani.
The State Ministry assigned two doctors, four nurses, three water engineers, and a team of water technicians to the Amfani project (as it was nicknamed by the commissioner). Aunt Asabe informed my parents that a larger group of professionals were on their way and would be arriving before sunset.
My mother became worried about how she was going to lodge and feed the group, and Aunt Asabe could not stop laughing at her. She reassured her that there was no need to worry, because the team was coming along with a two motorhomes with enough lodging and feeding facilities for them. The motorhome concept was new to me and my siblings. I could not wait to share this wonder and new knowledge with my friends
“Oh, this will make me the most popular teenager in the entire village!” I thought.
True to my aunt’s word, the team arrived before sunset with two huge motorhomes, each one attached to a big truck that could seat up to six people. In addition, another group came with an ambulance (I had heard of them, but this was my first time seeing one), while a fifth group arrived in a large enclosed lorry (Aunt Asabe explained to us that this was a mobile laboratory, and it would be used to test the village water).
Fortunately, Father had cleared a sizeable portion of our front yard in preparation for salah festivities, so there was enough parking space for the vehicles and motor homes. Kids from around the village came over to see the State officials and their vehicles. My house and compound became the center of attention. I was so excited. There was so much to look at; the elegantly-dressed professionals and their white coats and vehicles were fascinating. Amfani had never seen anything like it. We went to bed late, but if it were left to me we would not have gone to bed at all. I could have stayed up all night just to stare at the vehicles, if nothing else.
I woke late the next morning. Breakfast went by quickly; the entire family could not wait to go outside to greet our special guests and watch them in action. By this time, the health crew had swung into action. Aunt Asabe informed me that a group had gone out to take water samples from rivers and wells, while another group was going from house to house meeting with affected families and treating symptoms as needed. There was another small team left behind preparing to conduct tests whenever the water samples arrived.
I had so many questions for her. Questions like, “How do you become a doctor?”, “Why do we need water testers when we have doctors and nurses here?”, “What role is my aunt playing in all of this?”, “How did she come to the conclusion that our water was polluted?”, “How did she gain access to the health department?”
Aunt Asabe took her time providing answers to my questions and explaining the details of the whole project. The entire process continued to intrigue me. I had never seen anything like it.
From the very first time I saw Aunt Asabe, I knew my life would never be the same again. The presence of the health team confirmed it for me. Beyond the borders of Amfani lay a larger world ready for me to conquer. The professionalism, appearance, and conduct of the health team further cemented my desire and strong will to step outside of this comfort zone, get educated, and work for the government.
By midday the health experts had returned, and they had a brief round table conference, with each team giving a full report and submitting evidence or samples as needed. For the rest of the day, the health team stayed together working hard to find a solution. I was allowed to watch and admire from a distance. I was ready to do all I could to become one of these professionals.
Later that evening, my aunt pulled my parents into our living room and informed them of the findings. According to her, Amfani village’s water source had been contaminated with high levels of methylmercury, which upon consumption, causes an unknown ailment called Minamata disease in children. Her words and explanation did not make any sense to my parents and I.
Regardless, Aunty continued to expound on the dangers of mercury pollution to our lives via consumption of polluted water. She went ahead to explain the symptoms associated with Minamata, including a condition known as acrodynia (pink skin disease) whereby the skin loses color and begins to peel. Disease of the kidneys was another critical symptom. Kidney-related issues could also lead to skin discoloration, ulcers, and rashes. Minamata is also known to be implicated in memory loss and lack of appetite for those infected. This was unchartered territory for me. I could not understand half of what she explained, but luckily, she had a book that provided a good explanation of the disease and related issues in very simple terms.
The following day, the health team announced their findings to the village head. They requested to run diagnostic tests on all the children in the village. The team also requested that the village head ban usage of water from all rivers and consumption of fish caught from the river. Swimming was also banned. Villagers were implored to boil water from the uncontaminated stream before consumption. The health team also announced plans to provide safe drinking water in the village.
The importance of water in our daily lives became glaring to all Amfani residents. Water is our primary means of sustenance. Our farmers utilize water for irrigation of crops during the dry seasons, fishermen plied the river Niger and other smaller water bodies to catch fish. One hundred percent of the village domestic water came from the river Niger and nearby rivers and streams. For centuries, our ancestors depended on these aquatic sources for survival.
In the past ten years, Amfani has witnessed an explosion of mining activities that led to the pollution of our water bodies. Thanks to the research and hard work of the State health team, we would never have found the source of the problem that has claimed the lives of innocent children. It is nearly impossible to ban mining activities in the village due to the influence of the wealthy companies involved in these activities. That is a battle for another day. The critical fight at hand is restoring the health of sick Amfani kids.
So, our lives in Amfani took a turn for the better. Change came at a very rapid pace. There were talks of building a borehole system in the village and even construction of tarred roads to connect other parts of the state. Life at this point would never return to normal. Amfani is now on the world map in a very good way, thanks to our infected water system.
Much gratitude goes to Aunt Asabe. She was the lioness that tackled the problem head on. She was relentless in her determination to understand the problem and seek the right solution. She gained the respect of the entire village. There were talks of the village head conferring her with a traditional title of “Lioness of Amfani”.
I adored Aunt Asabe even more than ever. She became my idol and I wanted to be exactly like her. Secretly, I wished I could go with her to Lagos, live with her, and attend the university like she did. But, deep down I thought my parent would never allow this. If per chance I got to attend university, I prayed to study a health-related course. I may need to become a nurse or even a doctor to do this.
“Hmmm,” I thought, “this means I would definitely have to leave Amfani. If wishes were horses…”
This may never happen. However, there is nothing wrong with daydreaming. Nonetheless, this series of events left an indelible mark on me. It clearly revealed the critical importance of water in human survival.
On the eve of Aunt Asabe’s departure for Lagos, which was about three weeks after she had initially arrived and impacted the village in a very big way, my parents pulled me aside to discuss a critical issue.
“Bebe,” my father said. “You have grown to become an intelligent and well-behaved teenage girl. Your mother and I are very proud of you.”
I was wondering where this was going, but I kept my calm and remained patient.
“There is a need for you to attain the highest level of education,” my father continued, “We, your parents, need to foster the gifts God has endowed you with. We have observed and seen the positive influence your aunt has had on you and how you have followed the village developments in the past three weeks.”
Now I was becoming more impatient. What were they both driving at? “Baba,” I said “You are correct. But why are you having this conversation with me?”
“Well,” he responded, “Your mother and I have decided that it would be best you follow your aunt to Lagos, live with her, and attend school. We believe you were born to attain goals bigger than what Amfani has to offer.”
On hearing this I was elated and jumping up and down, hugging my father and mother.
“Yes, yes, yes,” I yelled. I would love to go with Aunt Asabe. “I have dreamed about going with her and enrolling in the university in a few years. This water pollution even has ingrained in me a determination to become a healthcare worker.” I could not hide my excitement. My dream come true thanks to the changed water brought to my village through Aunt Asabe.
And so, begins my journey to become a medical doctor with a specialization in water-borne diseases.