Most Lagos outskirts are known to be dangerous slums. Across Nigerian urban communities, the story is no different. But, beneath the relentlessly slummy surfaces of these communities lie a kind of moral discomfort. The drainage ditches are frequently blocked with faeces, which often overflow during the rainy season into houses and streets, such that most paths are wholly composed of human waste. This, according to this report by ISIOMA MADIKE, is now global attention
When news broke recently that Nigeria is ranked third among the countries of the world where people still practise open defecation, many could not believe such a report to be true. But given the source of the report, it was difficult to fault it.
Zaid Jurji , the United Nations Children Funds (UNICEF) Chief of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) in Nigeria, was quoted by the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) to have made the revelation in Katsina when he paid courtesy visit to Governor Aminu Masari on November 21.
“The situation of sanitation in Nigeria is alarming. Nigeria is third worldwide when it comes to open defecation, one-third of the population practise it. “Nigeria is a heavyweight country, not only in Africa, but worldwide.
It does not go well to know that open defecation is being practised widely in various communities in a strong country like Nigeria. So, we need to do something about that beyond the traditional approach to improve on the situation,’’ Jurji said.
The UNICEF WASH chief said his organisation would continue to provide funds that would be merged with counterpart funds from state governments to render the much needed services. He urged leaders and other stakeholders to intensify efforts toward enlightening people on the dangers associated with the ugly trend.
“We believe that Nigerians listen to their leaders, and may be a couple of statements from you, on many occasions as appropriate, will start making a difference. Our role is to see that happening, but changing people’s attitudes by making them to know that open defecation is something Nigerians cannot stand anymore,’’ he said. Jurji said that eradicating open defecation would also assist to improve sanitation, being one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
He stressed the need for every household to ensure installation of a standard pit latrine. In his remarks, Masari said that the state government was making efforts to provide pit latrines in public places like schools, market and motor parks.
The governor said that his administration would provide the latrines on ownership basis to ensure their proper maintenance. He revealed over 110 pit latrines had been constructed in primary schools, while the State Universal Basic Education (SUBEB) constructed another 118 latrines in some other schools across the state.
He said that improving sanitation and eradicating open defecation would assist to reduce diseases by about 50 per cent. Incidentally, this is not the first time Nigeria is occupying top position in open defecation ranking among nations of the world.
The country first occupied such position in an earlier ranking done in December, 2016, according to Water- Aid, an Infographic international charity focused on improving access to safe water, hygiene and sanitation. Open defecation is the practice of people excreting outside and not into a designated toilet.
The term is widely used in literature about water, sanitation, and hygiene issues in developing countries. Kanann Nadar, UNICEF WASH Specialist, at a Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) Conference in Abuja in 2016, said that open defecation- free Nigeria was possible. He said it could achieve its target of meeting the National Roadmap of Ending Open defecation by 2030 if it put policies in place to encourage behavioural change for sanitation and hygiene.
But how did Nigeria come to this sorry pass? It happens almost everywhere around the country. A few days back, for instance, a young man dashed out of his room with clenched teeth, pulled open his zippers, took a quick look to his right and left, retired to a small bush by the school building, and dropped off lumps of smelly faeces. The action surprised no one, for it is a tradition of sort in this part of the megacity.
In virtually every open space in and around Ajegunle, heaps of faeces literally jostle for space with human beings. From the homes, faeces wrapped up in newspapers are launched from windows, scattering into a spatter mess; it piles the streets as though they are articles of ornament. Yet, no one seemed to bother about it.
“This is how we do it here. You can hardly find a toilet in most homes and where you find one, it is untidy; not good for any decent use. Most times, what you find is a makeshift toilet in which wooden plank platform are constructed with buckets under it. The sight of such is quite disgusting. For all these, we consider it convenient and comfortable doing it in the open, and since it suits us, it should not be anybody’s headache,” said a young man, who identified himself simply as Uwa. He said that the “practice is common in our society, especially in cities where toilet facilities are a luxury. When nature calls, everyone responds differently.”
However, Uwa’s excitement, many believe, is simply a collective adaptation to extreme hardship. He, like many others in Ajegunle, were born and bred in that ghetto. Though, Uwa and his likes seem to have a fascination for defecating in public places and in bushes, they are not alone in this act and Ajegunle is not an isolated case. It is a common practice in the city of Lagos.
But, such behaviour, according to some, clearly portrays the level of helplessness and frustration in most Nigerian communities. But, whatever will make a man or a woman discard civility so easily to wind and defecate on a field without caring a hoot, to others, must be really grave.
Mallam Musa, a skinny, solemn 42-year-old itinerant trader with anxious eyes, shares an eight-by-10-foot room with three other young men, on an alley in Mushin, several hundred feet from Oshodi, another densely populated slum in the mainland. Musa came to Lagos from Kano In 1998.
Upon arriving in the megacity, he went straight to Mushin to settle among his kinsmen that were long established in that locality. In Mushin, rectangular concrete block houses squeeze seven or eight people into a single, mosquito-infested room, in bunks or on the floor, along a narrow corridor of opposing chambers.
This arrangement is known as “face me I face you.” One compound can contain 15 people or more. And data collected from residents revealed that potable water is none satisfactory in this area and safety is eroded by the non-availability of latrines or non-latrine coverage in households within the community, even as residents coexist uneasily.
On the night of February 2, 2002, a Hausa youth, sources said, saw a Yoruba boy squatting over a gutter on the street and demanded: “Why are you shitting there?” In a city where only about 0.4 per cent of the inhabitants, according to available statistics, have a toilet connected to a sewer system, it was more of a provocation than a serious question.
The incident that night led to a brawl. Almost immediately, the surrounding compounds emptied out, and the streets filled with Yorubas and Hausas, armed with machetes and guns. The fighting lasted four days and was ended only by the military occupation of Mushin.
By then, more than a hundred residents had been killed, thousands had fled the area, and hundreds of houses burnt down. Just like Ajegunle and Mushin, the Island end of the megacity also presents an interesting twist.
The bridges that connect it to the mainland are looping ribbon of concretes. Most of them were built in the 1970s. Parts of a vast network of the bridges, cloverleaf, and expressways intertwined to them were intended to transform the districts and islands into an efficient modern metropolis.
As the bridges snake over sunken piers just above the waters of Lagos Lagoon, they pass a floating slum: thousands of wooden houses, perched on stilts a few feet above their own bobbing refuse, with rust-coloured iron roofs wreathed in the haze from thousands of cooking fires.
Fishermen and market women paddle dugout canoes on water as black and viscous as an oil slick. The bridges then passes the sawmill district, where rain-forest logs—sent across from the far shore, 30 miles to the east—form a floating mass by the piers. Smouldering hills of sawdust landfill send white smoke across the bridges, which mix with diesel exhaust from the traffic.
Beyond the sawmills, the old waterfront markets, the fishermen’s shanties, the blackened façades of high-rise housing projects, and the half-abandoned skyscrapers of downtown Lagos Island loom under a low, dirty sky. Around the city, faeces dumps steam with the combustion of natural gases, and auto yards glow with fires from fuel spills. All of these parts of the city seem to be burning and stinking.
For those, who are working on the Island or just visiting for the first time, the aquatic scenery of the lagoon ought to present an uncommon beauty to behold. But, it is not so for Christopher Awolo.
His experience, according to him, is everything but pleasing. Driving through the Third Mainland Bridge en route Obalende-CMS recently, Awolo saw several buttocks spewing shit into the lagoon.
“It was quite disgusting,” he said, adding, “It’s awful seeing Lagosians defecate in the open as if they don’t have toilets in their homes.” In a city with a population of over 21 million, the act could only be curbed by providing more public toilets for Lagosians.
“There are adequate spaces in Lagos for people to have everything in their homes. No office or residential building should be without a good toilet. Nigerian governments should provide more public modern toilets with the taxpayers’ money.
In some countries, a good toilet is located every five minutes’ walk. This is also possible in Lagos,” said Williams Appiah, a Ghanaian Urban and Town planning expert. In Ibadan, a public refuse dumping site close to Yidi Agodi is also packed always as early as 5am on a daily basis by individuals, who now found the place most convenient to defecate.
This is in total disregard to a bold notice threatening ‘open defecators’ will be arrested and huge fines will be paid. What makes the site unique is its closeness to a stream that empties into a major river. Flies around the area easily perched on uncovered foods; thereby adding potentially harmful germs.
This shameful act is replicated at major refuse dumping sites across the city. Many, living in houses without identifiable toilets, are compelled to defecate at open spaces such as dumpsites and on the bank of slowly flowing streams and rivers. However, owners of such houses have come to believe that toilets would be an additional burden since money would be needed to keep them clean and usable.
There are others in that neighbourhood, who also believe, though wrongly, that faecal material should incinerate or be allowed to decompose on such sites. Also in the Federal Capital Territory, virtually all residents in its suburbs suffer a similar fate. This has become a striking irony of Abuja. Behind the allure of expansive roads and rising buildings that make the Nigerian capital Africa’s most expensive and one of the world’s fastest growing cities, several poor communities in the suburb live without toilets.
“It’s bad; very terrible,” Ms. Augusta Nmakwe, one of the residents in Mararaba, said. Mararaba, a sprawling community of over 100,000 people is one of Abuja’s outskirt towns where residents struggle to find a space to build homes, much less toilets.
For those without a toilet, the routine is simple: convert everything, from old sewage pipes to polythene bags to roads kerb, to one. More than 60 per cent of the population living in other suburbs within the FCT is equally affected by shortage of toilets, making them to leave with a very serious health challenge.
At present, deaths from diseases such as cholera, dysentery, diarrhea, typhoid, as well as malaria, according to reports, are very rife within these communities. Sadly, women and children are the worst hit.
Poor sanitary condition resulting from absence of proper human waste management facilities has haunted residents of many other communities around the country. The low-cost settlement, a magnet for thousands of poor Nigerians and low-income earners, has all the compliments of a typical ghetto with most houses lacking toilets, water, electricity and other basic social amenities that make life worth living. It is, indeed, obvious that sanitation is a major challenge in the country.
The evidence is everywhere. Nigeria appears to be one huge field, where people defecate, without shame, and without putting into consideration the impact of their action on the health of others. Travellers are not left out of this “madness.”
For anyone, who has travelled from Lagos to the east by road, knows that there are few rest areas with toilet facilities along the route. At stops in Ore or Benin City, pressed passengers hurry off into the bushes, gingerly skating around others’ faeces, in order to relieve themselves.
Toileting in most villages are equally an awful experience. In many rural communities, people still build houses without provision for toilets, or as the case may be, latrines where human waste can be emptied without others coming in contact with it. In many rural communities, people defecate in the bushes and other isolated places when they are pressed.
They consider this a safer option to the city’s ‘Shot Put’ style where shameless people defecate in polythene bags or old newspapers and fling on the roadside and gutters. Yet, there are other villages where the act of defecating in the open has become almost a ritual and routine that some people indulge in at any time of the day. At times, they do it, religiously as if it is a spiritual exercise.
A report from a workshop in Jos that preceded the Water Supply and Sanitation Sector Reform Programme (WSSSRP) funded by the European Union in Nigeria in 2002, pointed to traditional belief also. In some communities, it is a taboo to excrete on another person’s waste.
This in effect, supposedly does away with the use of toilets. Often, one would watch in such communities as scores of people line up along the rail line doing their own thing. The story is not significantly different in the nation’s institutions as some compounds also spread intense odour as many students, in the absence of clean toilets in the hostels, use any available space as convenience.
Yet, experts have consistently warned that when large numbers of people are defecating outdoors, it is extremely difficult to avoid ingesting human waste, either because it enters the food or water supplies or because it has to be spread by flies and dust.
Available statistics show that an outrageous 2.1 million children under the age of five have died from diarrhea caused by poor water sanitation and hygiene in recent years. According to a WaterAid report, the consequences of open defecation are many: it pollutes underground water sources, contaminates agricultural produce, breed diseases such as cholera, diarrhea and bilharzias. In Nigeria, many have argued that one easy way to gauge how badly Nigerians have been animalised, is to pay attention to how, and where, many of them defecate.
A few years back, UNICEF reported that about 34 million people in the country use the open fields, forests and bushes as well as bodies of water as convenience. But the cost of these unhealthy living conditions – of indiscriminately polluting the environment – is expensive.
Lack of toilets and inadequate sanitation has been linked to some of the health challenges afflicting the nation today, many of them fatal, particularly to children. According to the joint UNICEF and the World Health Organisation report, lack of toilets remains one of the leading causes of illness and death among children.
The report said that diarrhea, a disease often associated with poor sanitary condition, and respiratory infections resulting from poor hygiene, kills over 400,000 children, under the age of five, annually.
“These are largely preventable with improvements in water, sanitation and hygiene,” said Geoffrey Njoku, UNICEF Communication Specialist (Media and External Relations) in Nigeria. Earlier, in a related report, both organisations ranked Nigeria only ahead of China and India on the list of countries without access to potable water and where 20 per cent of its population indulged in “open defecation”.
However, this latest report is evident that the country has not made any progress. Indeed, the figure is suggestive that more Nigerians now use the outdoors to ease themselves. According to one official of UNICEF, Dr. Suomo Sakai, the unwholesome practice leads to the depositing of about 1.7 million tonnes of faeces into the environment annually.
This statistics from West Africa most populous country paints a general picture for the region with respect to this problem.But, lack of sufficient infrastructure has been identified as a contributory factor to the problem with the failure of governments to effectively address these in rural and urban settlements.
Add to this, is the behavioural attitudes across communities, which play a major role in this menace. Concepts of hygiene, cleanliness, purity, and beliefs about sanitation and disease are also deeply ingrained through religious and cultural beliefs.
This report was amplified by Dr. Michael Ojo, an official of WaterAid, who brought the shame to almost every home. He said every seven in 10 women in the country have no access to a safe toilet, and more than 50 million Nigerian women and girls lacked safe and adequate sanitation, while 17 million do not have access to toilets at all.
“Every year, over 85,000 mothers in Nigeria lose a child to diarrhea diseases caused by a lack of adequate sanitation and clean water,” said Ojo. “Women and girls living in Nigeria without toilet facilities spend 3.1billion hours each year finding a place to go to toilet in the open,” he added.
Ban Ki-moon, former United Nations secretary general, had also declared that sanitation is “a vital tool for improving the lives of millions of the poorest people.” Indeed, potable water and improved sanitation services are verifiable measures for fighting poverty and diseases. Perhaps, that is why it is an essential part of the Millennium Development Goals.
The danger, though, is that the increasing population within city centres from increased birth rates and the rural-urban drift made it difficult to attain the MDG’s set figures of 2015. In light of the ever increasing population rates, it means that rural areas and, especially urban centres are more than ever facing threats of disease due to lack of access to basic sanitation facilities, particularly toilets.
Apart from its unhygienic nature, defecating in the open does not add to environmental aesthetics. It is undignifying. Perhaps, this may be the reason why the wife of former Lagos State Governor, Abimbola Fashola, appealed to Lagos residents to stop the habit of defecating in open places. According to her, public defecation and urination are two habits that everybody must fight because they affect the citizenry negatively. Also, former Commissioner for the Environment, and Secretary to the Lagos State government, Tunji Bello, said it was incumbent upon government to discourage unwholesome act of open defecation by enlisting the support of well-meaning Lagosians to actualise its vision of making Lagos a cleaner, healthier and environmentally friendly haven. According to him, the cost of open defecation and urination was too much to be ignored.
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