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Nigeria: Stories from Benue State's Flood Victims


By Vivian U. Ogbonna



Monday, October 30, 2017.


Mama Kutsue Kwembe’s eyes are fixed on me. She doesn’t respond to my greeting and I don’t know if she can hear or see me. She’s dressed in a long-sleeved brown dress that exposes her thin legs. She’s propped up on a low chair. Tufts of white hair peek out from under her woolly cap. At 105 years old, Mama Kutsue is the oldest resident in a camp housing victims of the Benue State flooding. According to her 45 year old grand-daughter, Mbahenen Saaka, who spoke to me through an interpreter, Mama Kutsue had been a farmer and trader when she was younger. She had also been a Grassroots Politician and Women’s Leader, and during the tenure of former Benue State governor, George Akume, had been active in mobilizing women in several communities.

According to Ms Saaka, Mama Kutsue owns the land where Benue State Teaching Hospital is. Government took it and compensated her with money.

“They relocated her to another place but they pursued her from there. The second time they demolished the place. The third time they showed her one small place. That place is always flooded starting from 2012 when that flood came. She has been suffering the flood,” she said. “Presently, she said they should bring her here, that she will remain here and die here. The problem has made her son to go mental and he’s now in chains somewhere. George Akume was the one who made provisions for her house when they were relocating her. After his tenure, Suswam came with his own plans and collected it from her and gave her money. But the money was not enough so her son refused to collect it. Then they demolished the place. Her son used to be a court worker and was the one taking care of her. But when she became too old and blind, my mother, Mbawua Sule, left her husband’s house to come and take care of her.”  

Mbahenen’s own house was also affected by the floods and now, the three of them live with more than 4,000 other displaced adults and children at the International Market, Markurdi. The state authorities say 21 communities are affected but a source says they are less.

I look around the square space that serves as accommodation for these women - three generations of one family. The only furnishing is a mattress on the floor with a mosquito net over it, a charcoal stove, a black bucket, a few pots, plates and spoons.

The camp comprises of rows of brown, brick-finished buildings divided into shops. Each shop accommodates three to four households. The first set of data documented 676 households, 552 adult males, 662 adult females, 1,451 male children and 1,387 female children. Of this number, children under 5 years are 595, pregnant women are 92, and nursing mothers are 129, while the physically challenged are 58.

                           ***

I am in Markurdi for several reasons. I had applied to an organisation to work as a volunteer at one of the camps, but I didn’t receive any response from them. I was also raising non-cash donations for the victims. But a few days before my trip, I said to myself, “Why don’t you do an article about this crisis, with a focus on the victims and their experiences.”

I arrive at the camp at about 3.00p.m on Friday, 15th September. The gate is adorned with banners - The Nigerian Association of Clinical Psychologists, Advanced Medical Centre for Trauma Victims and several others, including a church.

It is clean and orderly, and residents are going about their business of sweeping, cooking, washing, fetching water, hair- plaiting. Some are in small groups, talking. Children are running about, playing. One woman looks into a hand-held mirror as she picks the pimples on her face. I tease her and she smiles.

A small queue stretches out in front of the bathroom. I am worried about sanitary conditions but an official tells me that volunteers supervise the cleaning of the toilets. These volunteers work for NGOs registered under BENGONET - Benue Non-Governmental Organisation Network. BENGONET, in turn, takes directives from BSEMA, the State Emergency Management Agency.

I see Ghanaian actress, Juliet Ibrahim, with members of her foundation. They’re taking photographs with camp officials who take her round the camp afterwards. She acknowledges greetings from the victims and some take selfies with her. Earlier, a truck had arrived with mattresses, cooking stoves and cartons of Indomie Noodles. A large room close to the gate serves as a store. It is bursting with mattresses, pillows, foodstuff and other items. In a smaller room, mattresses are stacked to the ceiling. Later, another truck would drive in with bags of pure water.

“Nigerians are very good people,” a camp official says when I tell her I am impressed with the donations I have seen. She says all of them have come from their international partners such as UNICEF, Banks and other corporate organisations, politicians, Youth Groups, Lion’s Club, Rotary International, Women’s Groups, Churches and individuals. The Nigerian Air Force has set up a clinic. Tuface Idibia has also visited. It is these donations that have sustained the camp and she hopes the government will respond in similar manner.

I wonder what will happen to left-over donations when the camp eventually shuts down.

                          ***

Today, I’m determined to interact with the victims.


A young lady sits on the floor, breast-feeding a baby. Her name is Iveren and her baby is three months old. I try to make conversation but I sense she’s not in the mood to talk. She only tells me she’s here with her mother-in-law. I offer a few words of encouragement and walk away.

A man is pushing a bag of beans in a wheel barrow. He stops in front of a room and a young girl emerges holding forth a black plastic bucket. While a second man ticks off something on a piece of paper, he fills a bowl with beans and pours it into the girl’s bucket. Then, he moves to the next room, trailed by a small group of men. An argument breaks out. It is settled and the sharing of food stuff continues.

Close by, a woman sits alone. Her dress and hair are impeccable, but she looks forlorn. Her name is Regina Shuaibu and the waters destroyed both her shop and one-room accommodation.

Theresa Nweke, from Anambra State, has lived in Markurdi most of her life. When the floods came, she was able to move some of her property out and into a neighbour’s house. She now lives in the camp with her children while her husband, who is blind, lives with relations.

I approach a young man who is clutching a plate of food. Two young boys are seated beside him, eating. His name is Reuben and he’s an Aluminium Worker. He’s also a Part-time student at the College of Advanced Professional Studies, Markurdi. “I rented a room where I live with my brothers. I’m in charge of their welfare but my mother helps me sometimes. The rain that fell that day was too much. All my books were wet. All my things scattered. Some were carried away [by the flood]. When I heard the government has created a space for people here, I brought my brothers because for me to rent a house now, it is money. I didn’t plan for it. I’m totally confused about my future. I can’t just say where I am heading to. But I hand everything to the lord.” He pauses and continues. “They too, they are treating us so badly here but it is how God planned it.”

Close by, some women are talking animatedly. I don’t understand what they’re saying, but they keep glancing at me. I sense they want to say something. “We are like slaves here,” one of them eventually says. Her voice is bitter and I probe further. She says many of them do not have mattresses, and her baby cries throughout the night because he’s uncomfortable` sleeping on the bare, hard floor.  

Her complaint unleashes a torrent of other grievances from the other women – there is no charcoal to cook their food, no pure water, no blankets, no mosquito nets and even the onions are left to rot in the sun!

I am surprised to hear this.

“Tuface gave us money. What have they done with it?” The first woman says.

“Even Rochas gave us 10 million,” another says.

I turn my attention back to Reuben. “Imagine, there was a newspaper that I read where they said they are giving us two thousand naira every day. But that is not true. It’s a lie.” His voice is pained. “So many rumours outside there. Even the foodstuff they give us, it was our protest that made them bring them out. We protested that these things are for us and not for sale. After that they started giving us a little but not much. Sometimes for three days they will not give us anything.”

I try to reason with him. Perhaps they [camp officials] are rationing the items so the camp doesn’t run out of supplies.

“They should have let us know that is why they are hoarding it. We are the victims and people out there are watching us. They are not telling us how the money is being spent.”

Jacob Aza has been listening attentively to Reuben and I. He has very expressive eyes. I beckon to him. “I’m alone,” he says. “I sent my children to my brother’s house so they won’t suffer here.” He’s a tailor and farmer. The floods carried away his industrial weaving machine, one Tinko Designing machine, a Butterfly machine and a grinding machine. He also lost four bags filled with customers’ fabrics. He was not in Markurdi when the floods came and when he arrived his house was empty. He doesn’t know if the items were washed away by the water or if looters carted them away. He’s worried that when he leaves the camp his customers will demand to have their fabrics back. “What will I do?” he asks. “When I lie on my mat I will be thinking.”

His anxiety is understandable because even at the best of times people are afflicted by a fear of the future. Earlier that day, the camp official who was taking me round had envisaged that the post-flood period will be more challenging for the victims than the present one. They’ll be faced with more serious concerns such as having their houses rebuilt or being relocated to safer areas.

But how quickly and efficiently can the government and her agencies tackle these concerns, given that there are people like Mama Kutsue, who have been rendered homeless by the crisis?

                          ***

It is by chance that I find myself seated before a staff of NEMA and another man, a self-employed engineer. Both are drawing up recommendations about the causes of and solutions to the crisis. I take permission to record their conversation. According to the Engineer, “Government should service the layouts before they give out plots but people buy plots before the layouts are serviced. Benue state in general is a Floodplain and people build in the Floodplains, so when the water doesn’t find its natural course it swells and spills over.  Also, drainage channels feed into the river and when they are blocked the water swells. It’s not because of Climate Change. There’s no proper Environmental Management Plan, no Waste Management Plan. The Ministry of Environment that is supposed to do all these things does not have the capacity.”

I ask the NEMA official how these disasters can be predicted and forestalled.

“At the beginning of the year, we normally receive a seasonal rain fall prediction from NIMET. We look at the implications and states are advised on what to do. For those that experience shortage of rain fall we advise them what to do, like stockpiling of food stuff. Those that are prone to flooding, especially those living on river banks, we tell them to evacuate their people. Unfortunately most of the states do not heed these early warnings.”

So, from Kogi state to Lagos to Owerri and Markurdi, natural disasters are the outcomes of the ways we neglect, abuse and mismanage our environment. These disasters ruin properties, upturn lives, fragment families and create unwilling migrants within our borders.  

                           ***

Music is blaring from one end of the camp and I’m curious.

The Benue State Branch of Gospel Music Performers Association of Nigeria is entertaining the children. The music is loud but the children’s shouting is louder. They don’t have a care in the world.

Close by, an NGO is teaching the victims how to make foot wear, liquid soap and disinfectants. In spite of the scorching sun, men, women and children surround the instructors. Some are taking notes.

Earlier on, I had seen an NGO measuring the children’s heights and weighing them on scales in a bid to assess their nutritional needs. I am told a similar assessment had been done of their educational needs in anticipation of partners who would set up a school within the camp.                           

I am about to leave for the camp at Azan, but my bladder is full to bursting. I rush to the toilets where the stench of urine hits me. The door to my left is locked. The one to my right is open but two inches of water cover the floor. I back away. The areas around the toilet block are littered with lumps of faeces.  

I hurry towards the gate where my chaperone is waiting. A security man is waving a truck in. A staff of BENGONET tells me it is carrying 1,000 pillows and a second truck carrying 1,000 mattresses is on its way from Lagos. They are all donations from MTN.

                           ***

The purpose-built camp at Azan comprises of three completed buildings and an uncompleted one. There is no access to the hostels and some of the victims – mostly women and children - sleep in the unfinished block. Now, some are milling about, the babies suckling at their mothers’ exposed breasts. Others lounge on the passage ways, apparently waiting for night. Poporri Charity Foundation makes a presentation of gifts. It starts to drizzle.

As we head back to town, we see women and children on both sides of the road, trekking, some with babies on their backs. I wonder where they’re heading to.

                         ***  

Yaladua and Jude are two boys living at the International Market. They are aged between 8 and 10 years. Earlier in the day, I had asked them what they thought about the camp. Do they like it or do they want to go home?

“I want to go home,” they had chorused, as though on cue.


Image (c) Scan news

Vivian U. Ogbonna is an interior decorator who lives and works in Lajos and Abuja, Nigeria. She studied English Language at the University of Nigeria Nsukka. She loves the written word and hopes to be a published author in the future.




Nigeria: Stories from Benue State's Flood Victims

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