The sun filtered down from the jewelled skylight, water playfully tinkled from the granite fountain catching the midday sun that poured into the atrium of the Yar’adua centre. I was looking at a set of pictures pinned to the wall. I couldn’t quite see what I was looking at. There were three that seemed to be where rocky ground met a swamp. It wasn’t much of a swamp even, a dirty brown smear with spines, porcupine quill reeds bristling up. In the third photograph there is a woman walking toward the camera. She has an enamel bowl on her head. Her red wrapper looks dull and muddy, I can’t tell if it’s the photograph over exposed or the swamp smeared on her body.
In the first of the next row of photos, a man sits on the floor, holding a cup. His green caftan is rumpled. I see his face. It looks punched. The photo looks as if it’s captured the moment he hit the floor on his rear. His mouth is pushed to one side and pursed in pain. It looks like he’s been pushed down, humiliated.
I can’t see what the other photos are because my eyes are on the next three. They’re drawn to the pictures by a kind of grotesque fascination. A woman stands with her arms open, fists clutching the corners of her wrapper. Her torso is exposed, her head removed by the edge of the picture. Her breasts hang around a giant bulbous belly. Under her skin, it seems, are bags of pawpaw, or potatoes. One of the bags has erupted in a raw, open, weeping wound.
The pictures are part of a display wall in the Rotary Project Fair. Tony, a smartly dressed Rotarian from Yola, explains the village is a few kilometres from Numan in Adamawa state. “When I went to this village I had to take a bike. It was dry season and the driver went a very narrow path that would have been impossible during the rains.
In a salesman’s voice he says: “There are maybe 500 families in this village, and you know with our polygamous culture, there could be ten to fifteen people in one family. This water here is their only source of water,” he said pointing to the slick of mud in the first shots.
“Their only water?”
“Yes, drinking, bathing, washing. If you can see in this photo there is a woman taking water from behind these reeds.” I hadn’t seen her. He pointed her out. “They don't even boil it before drinking. They believe if they go further in the water is cleaner.” He shrugged.
Pointing to the man “This is the head of the village, and he’s drinking the water straight from the marsh.” The water was thick and brown, it looked like tea.
“Two decades ago some people came and dug a borehole, and after two days it packed up. Maybe they didn’t dig it properly and it dried up very quickly. And here,” he said pointing to a stack of dusty concrete blocks, “Is a well that never worked. In this area there is a lot of Bilharzia. This picture you can see samples of urine.” He pointed to a picture I had skimmed over because I was gripped by the pictures of the woman just below it. “All these are samples of bloody urine. The parasite lives in the bladder and feeds off tissue and the inside of the bladder bleeds.”
How many people have the disease in the village?
“Virtually everyone,” he said. “We want to dig a series of boreholes that will work. A standard borehole will cost 800,000 naira.” (3200 pounds)
And what does this lady have? I asked pointing at the pictures.
“No one knows,” he replied, “Because there is no health clinic or any facilities. Even this school," he said pointing to a building “was built by a charity, but in this school many children die of measles, because the disease spreads through the still air in the classrooms.” He points to a picture of a sandy piece of land with a tree. “This is where the villagers have designated someone can come and build a health facility if they want. The last time the government employed a village health worker, he came and after two days he ran away because there was no water.”
The only thing I could think to say was “I suppose most of the young people leave and go to the city.” Tony nodded.
As I thanked Tony for taking the time to explain the villages situation to me, a colleague of his pinned an A4 sized enlargement of the woman’s tumour-filled belly on the wall.
I returned to browsing the stands with the visiting American Rotarians as they decided which of the many projects on display to fund.