There was much applause, cheers, and words of encouragement as Binta Hassan approached the stage to receive her award.
“The day has finally come,” she murmured to herself as she climbed the podium.
It was a day set aside to celebrate and acknowledge female leaders who have demonstrated excellence in the WASH sector. Everyone in the auditorium knew that Binta, as she was fondly called, deserved the recognition, as she had made a positive impact on development in the WASH sector in Taraba state.
“Thank you, my beautiful people, it is good to be here today and to receive the award presented to me. There is a reason why we the people of Taraba are called ‘Nature’s gift to the nation’. Our togetherness as a state makes us strive to do better for the state in general. This award is a product of teamwork. It is a product of hard work on water projects, which we have had to embark on to fulfill the promise of giving our beautiful people of Taraba clean and safe water for consumption. The people living in our state capital, Jalingo, can attest to that. Our people in the sixteen local government areas of the state can feel the impact of clean and safer water supply.
“I am honoured to receive this award. May I also say that I look forward to a time when more women pursue careers in the WASH sector. I promise to do much more because as we all know, water is life. Once again, I thank everyone for the honour.”
As Binta took a bow, the applause grew loader. She smiled, but not at the people; she was smiling at her guardian angel. Binta knew her mother was looking down at her, pleased with her accomplishment.
“It’s been a wonderful day,” she murmured to herself.
Back in the office, Binta placed the award on the glass stand with her other awards. She touched each award, recollecting the circumstances in which they were won.
“I am indeed blessed!” Binta thought aloud.
As she touched the award that she had won that day, her assistant, Aisha, entered her office to congratulate her again.
“There is a reason that this award is special,” Binta said as Aisha walked towards her.
“How is it more special than the other awards”? Aisha asked her boss.
“Let’s go for lunch and I will tell you the story of a little girl,” Binta replied.
Long ago, in Dogo Ajam village of Gashaka Local Government Area in Taraba State, lived a widow whose name was Tiu, and her daughter Binta. Binta grew up in a village where the closest thing to civilization that they had was a primary school as well as a secondary school. This means that there was neither electricity, pipe borne water, nor good roads. Light at night was given off by candles and lanterns, while a large stream provided water for washing, cooking, drinking, and bathing. A single untarred road cut through the village. But despite lacking these things, there was an indescribable peace and serenity.
Tiu was a hardworking woman whose husband, Musa Hassan, died from a strange ailment. Everybody knew Musa was a man of peace, which caused him to be loved by all. While on the sick bed, Musa would pass stool on his body uncontrollably, and he sometimes vomited on his body several times a day. His wife, who was always near him to take care of her beloved husband, would wiped his body to keep his temperature down, and in the process, she would notice his heart beating very quickly.
Binta always sat in a corner of the room, praying for her father’s recovery. Who would believe that the once-agile man, who loved to carry her on his shoulders, was now a shadow of himself? Musa battled to stay alive, but he died three weeks later.
Many years later, Binta was able to identify that the ailment her father died from was cholera. She learned this when she was invited to a seminar on safe water. From what she learned, she realized that the symptoms her father had while he was ill were symptoms of cholera. It occurred to Binta that her father died from drinking contaminated water.
Since the death of her husband, Tiu had to play the role of a father and mother to their only child and daughter. The villagers stood by Tiu and Binta to protect and care for them. Binta’s father was buried in the compound of the house he built for his wife and daughter. It was believed that the spirit of the dead would always hover around its loved ones, watching over them and protecting them from evil. No wonder Binta would always pluck a flower to place on her father’s grave whenever she was sent to the stream to fetch water. She believed her father’s spirit was always with them, bringing them good luck and waving off bad omens.
Binta would sometimes sit on her father’s grave and talk to him when she was troubled. She would tell him all the activities that happened in school, how she went to fetch water, and what they cooked on Sunday, since Sundays were special days in Tiu and Binta’s house. Binta believed her father could hear everything she said.
The children looked forward to school days. Some of them liked to learn, while others enjoyed school because of the friends they would see and play with. The girls especially loved to go to school because they saw it as an escape from taking the long walks to the streams to fetch water.
“It is a girl’s work to fetch water from the stream, so run along,” their mothers would say.
They had to wake up early to fetch water for the family before heading to school. This chore affected the children’s learning, because some of them would get to school late, while others slept half of the time in class because they were too tired from the long walks and heavy lifting of pots of water on their heads.
Although Binta also fetched water early in the morning from the stream, her mother had her do the chore only twice during the school week, unlike her friends who were made to go every morning.
Binta loved school because it was an environment where she could learn. Her friends attended the same school as her, so she got to see them in school and also have fun playtimes with them at home. Binta’s best subjects were English and Math.
Her teachers would always tell her mother, “keep an eye on Binta, she is a brilliant child. Someday she is going to make you and this village proud.”
Of course, Tiu knew she had an intelligent daughter, but deep down she worried about how she would pay for Binta to further her education at university. The two schools in the village were government owned, therefore there was no need to pay school fees for now.
Binta did not know what she wanted to be when she grew up. All she knew was that she wanted to give her mother a better life. She wanted to buy her mother a big car, like the white car they saw enter the village chief’s house three months ago. The news of the visitors in the big white car had gone around the village very fast. The men and women in the village, including the young ones, all came out to see them. It is not every day that they get to see visitors in the village, not to mention visitors coming to see the village chief in a big white car.
Although nobody knew what the visitors came to do in the village, their presence left a lasting impression in the mind of the villagers, especially Binta, who would not stop talking about it. Just before she went to bed that night, Binta curled up to her mother.
“Mama,” she said.
“Yes, my daughter,” her mother answered her.
In the voice of an innocent child, Binta said, “I will buy you a big white car when I grow up.”
With tears in her eyes, Tiu looked up and said, “Thank you my daughter, I know you will.”
Binta knew her mother was poor, and that she toiled every day on the farmland her father left behind to feed them both. She never complained about anything, even when she was tired. Binta wished she could take the burden off her mother, but she knew there was nothing she could do for now. She was eager to grow up and buy her mother that car, so that people could admire her mother too.
“Someday.” she said to herself, as she drifted into sleep.
“Binta, Binta,” Tiu called to her daughter.
“Yes mama,” Binta replied from a distance.
Whenever Binta heard her mother call her name, she would stop playing with her friends and run to her mother. Binta loved her mother very much and at a tender age, she realized she would have to always be there for her mother because she was all her mother had since her father had died. Binta got to the entrance of the door to see her mother dishing out their dinner.
“Go and wash your hands and feet, my daughter, dinner is ready.”
Tiu always made sure she and her daughter ate dinner together. It was her way of maintaining the bond they shared. Binta was her source of joy.
After dinner, Binta went to the backyard to wash the dirty plates before going to join her friends under the big mango tree to listen to evening tales. Binta went to bed later that night and dreamt about the big white car.
Going to the stream was one of the activities that Binta loved to do. She always looked forward to the walk to the stream with her mother, and sometimes her friends. She would play around in the stream – she loved to feel of the cold water on her body when she swam. It was good to enjoy the water flowing while it lasted. During the dry season, they always had the problem of drought.
Everybody in the village cooked and drank the water from the stream. Of course, everyone bathed with it too. Binta’s mother would always heat the water from the stream in a very large pot until it boiled, then fill many larger pots for storage. She would allow the boiled water to cool in the pots, then she would take a large sift and sieve water back into the larger pots. She would then add a little alum to the water in the pots.
It never tired her to repeat this process twice a week and she would speak to Binta while she did it, saying, “the state of what goes into your mouth matters a lot and you must not be too tired to ensure it is as clean as possible, especially water”.
Tiu never knew that her method of treating the water fetched from the stream protected her and Binta against sicknesses, which could have come from unsafe drinking water. Unfortunately, her husband did not escape it. He loved to visit friends to eat and drink in their houses, just as they came to his house to eat and drink with him too. But because they never took precautions on how to treat unsafe water in their houses, Musa, Tiu’s beloved husband, contracted cholera. This she would not learn for a long time.
Binta always listened to her mother’s teachings with groans. As far as Binta was concerned, this was all too much stress just to drink water. Afterall, everyone else was drinking straight from the stream and still looking okay. So, why couldn’t we be like everyone else? What was the need for the unnecessary additional task of boiling, cooling, sieving, and adding alum?
When Binta asked her mother where she had learned all of that, she simply said, “she once met a visiting health worker in a neighbouring village who told her to always do that in order to keep her family from contracting water borne diseases from contaminated water.”
Binta was helping her mother in the compound when she heard screams and shouts from other children. She ran out to see what the noise was about and heard some of the children shouting, “the big white car is back in the village!”
Quickly, Binta ran back to the compound to inform her mother that she was going with the other children to see the big white car.
“Mama, I will be back soon,” she said.
Binta ran as fast as she could, following the short path to the village chief’s house. She knew without being told where the car was headed, and she was right. In front of the village chief’s house was parked the same big white car, but this time, there were two men and a woman, talking in low voices beside it. Binta wondered what they were talking about and moved closer to observe them. All she could pick up from the conversation was the word “water”.
Then she heard one of them say, “it will be a welcome development to have access to safe and healthy water in this community.”
Binta wondered what that meant. While she was pondering what she heard, she saw her English teacher, Mr John, who had also come to see what was happening. Mr John, was an NYSC Youth Corper, who had been deployed to Dogo Ajam village, in Taraba State, for his one-year National Youth Service.
“Good afternoon Sir”, Binta said.
“Good afternoon Binta, and what are you doing here?” her teacher asked her.
“I came to see our visitors,” she replied, referring to the people in the big white car. “Do you know why they are here?”
“Yes, of course. I heard that they are from a big organization in the city, to give this community easy access to clean and safe water. Our community has been chosen for one of their projects to fulfill their Corporate Social Responsibility.”
“What is Corporate Social Responsibility?” Binta asked.
“CSR, as it is called, is when a company decides to positively contribute to the public or the environment, by giving back to the society, in whatever way they can.”
“Sir, we already have water. What about the water at the stream?” Binta continued, “I don’t think we need water, we have enough for the whole village.”
“No, Binta, we need clean, safe, and healthy water,” said her teacher. The water we consume is directly from the stream. Have you noticed that the same water from the stream is the water that we drink, cook with, wash clothes with, and even some of you the children bathe in the stream”?
“Yes sir,” she said.
“It is not safe and healthy. That is why some of the children in this community don’t to school sometimes. They constantly fall sick due to the side effects of the bad water they drink.”
“Are they going to dig a big hole and give us another stream?” Binta asked innocently.
“No, they are going to give us clean, safe, and healthy water that comes running through a tap or borehole. The tap water or water from the borehole will be safe to drink, cook, bathe with, and wash clothes with. Guess what the best part is!”
“Tell me,” Binta said.
“There will be no need to always go to the stream with a pot on your head to fetch water at the stream!”
“That is good,” agreed Binta.
Her teacher continued, “Water is the single most important thing made by God. In fact, a popular musician, by the name Fela Anikulapo Kuti, made a song about it, about the importance of water and that it has no enemy because everyone has a need for it one way or the other. You see, Binta,” he continued, “people in this village do not know that human and animal waste, and also chemicals from the cement factory 45km away from the village if not properly disposed of, could contaminate the stream water. Unknown to many people, human excreta accommodates many germs.
“During the rainy season, human waste may be washed by rain water into streams. The germs in the human waste will then contaminate the water, which may be used for drinking. These are some of the reasons people in this village are always sick,” he said.
“How come I don’t get sick, like my friends?” Binta asked. “We drink from the same water from the stream. Is it because my mother boils the water we fetch from the stream?”
“She does?” Her teacher asked in surprise. “That is very impressive.”
“Yes, she boils the water, and sieves it too,” Binta said with a sense of pride, seeing that her mother’s method of boiling water impressed her teacher. She wasn’t going to allow an opportunity to pass to show off how her mother was doing something right and better than her friends’ mothers.
“Now I know why I see you in school every day and you never complain about being sick. Your mother is doing a good job,” said Mr John. “That is your mother’s way of disinfecting the water, to make it clean for drinking and food preparation. It is a process that eliminates germs.”
Her teacher went further and told her about the processing of water before it gets to the taps of people living in the city. He told Binta, “water processing’ is the treatment of water in order to improve its quality. Water can be processed for any reason, like drinking, industrial use, or water recreation. Clean water is not only good for preventing diseases, it is also good because of the assurance of healthy living.”
“When are they bringing this tap water?” Binta asked her teacher excitedly.
“I heard work will start tomorrow,” Mr. John replied.
Binta ran off excitedly, to explain to her friends what she could make of the conversation she had just had with her teacher. All she understood was that her community would be given clean and healthy water. She did not understand what her teacher meant by tap water, but she understood that whatever it was, it was good enough to stop the constant sicknesses experienced by the villagers, and there would be no need for long treks to the stream to fetch water.
Most of the children and elderly people in Dogo Ajam village had one waterborne disease or another due to contaminated water they drank from the stream. The children would sometimes have dysentery, and some people with weak immune systems were sick more often than others. Most of these diseases were treated with local herbs.
“One day, I will cure all these sick people of these diseases,” Binta thought to herself. Even though she did not know the ailments people in her village were suffering from, or how to get rid of them, she was determined to cure them.
“The teacher’s information was very good news,” Binta thought as she walked home happily to tell her mother.
Looking back now, Binta can say that her conversation with her teacher sowed the seed of her interest in “clean water” as a right. Once she was home, the teacher’s words kept ringing in her ears. At night, the echoes became louder and she was barely able to sleep for two hours. Binta thought about several things, but mostly about how the whole village would be able to claim the right to clean water.
The following morning, Binta woke up happy because she remembered it was the last day of the school term. This meant a period to rest from the early morning walk to the stream to fetch water before school. Although it was a chore she only did twice a week, it was still not easy to take those long walks to the stream.
Best of all, she was happy because today marked the beginning of having “tap water”, as her teacher called it, for the village. She would be able to watch from a distance as labourers worked on giving them water.
Having tap water also marked the beginning of the end of getting water from the stream.
“Mama, very soon, I will not have to wake up early to go to the stream to fetch water. I am happy about that,” said Binta.
“Binta, I am happy that very soon, I will stop boiling water on the firewood just to get clean water to drink and prepare food with. I am happier than you,” Tiu jokingly told her daughter.
Eight weeks went by very quickly. The sound of men singing while working awakened the village, the sound of drilling the ground became like music in the ears of the villagers. Everybody in the village, including the village chief, was happy and eager to see the outcome of the clean and safe water provided for the village.
The women were in their best attire, dancing in groups to the beautiful beats of the drummers, while the men looked on in admiration. The children were busy jumping around. The day had finally come to commission the water project and to officially declare it open. All the villagers were gathered in front of the village chief’s house, where the tap water was installed. Four people dressed in black suits had come in the same big white car that was now a constant sight in the village.
Binta watched in complete awe as the people walked towards the tap. It had been decorated with a ribbon. As one of the people in the black suits approached the tap, the village chief’s servant gave him a scissors also decorated with a ribbon. He used the scissors to cut the ribbon on the tap, and then he opened the tap. As water gushed out, there were shouts, screams, hugs, laughter, and clapping of hands from the villagers.
“This is magic,” Binta shouted.
“This is freedom,” an elderly woman standing beside Binta said.
Some days after the tap was commissioned, Binta and the villagers began to notice a change in the health of the village people. There was an instant reduction in the risk of water-borne diseases due to the access to clean and safe drinking water.
There was a major change in the living condition of the people, especially the women and the girls, who before were assigned the burden of going to the stream to fetch water for family consumption. The girls no longer went to school late, and the look of tiredness no longer lingered on their faces when they were in class. Learning became easier for them.
On a Wednesday morning, four weeks after the villagers had started enjoying the clean water, Binta went up to her class teacher, Mr John.
“ Sir, you asked me what I would like to become when I grow up, but I didn’t give you an answer because I didn’t know, but now I know,” she declared.
“That is interesting,” said her teacher, “and what would that be?”
“I want to grow up and help people have access to clean, safe, and healthy water, just like the water from borehole in front of the village chief’s house,” Binta said.
“I know you can do it if you set your mind to it,” said her teacher.
“You are the little Binta,” Aisha said, looking at her boss in admiration.
“Yes, after twenty years, I am still the same Binta. Even though you did not ask me, I will tell you, I bought my mother a car bigger than the big white car that was often brought to our village. My mother died a happy woman. “
Aisha, it’s time to get back to work. We have more water projects to work on,” Binta winked at her assistant as they left the restaurant, full from a delicious lunch.