“Towards the bank of Ekulu River, about 20 minutes’ drive from the Akanu Ibiam International Airport sits a certain camp called Gabon. With virtually no social amenity, or facilities, Gabon is completely cut off from modern life and pregnancy for women is a dangerous venture. ARINZE CHIJIOKE visited….”
Roseline Nweke 70 has been left with the burden of catering to the needs of her four grand children after her daughter, Nneka, 25 died in 2010 while giving birth to her fifth child who also died in the process.
With her husband dead, age weighing in on her and no one to help take care of the kids, Nweke’s life has taken a dramatic turn for the worse. To provide food for them, she goes to the market- Oye Emene- to look for people she can work for and when she gets paid- sometimes N500 and sometimes, N1000- she brings the money home to prepare food for the kids.
On days when there is nobody to work for, she returns home to the children and they sleep without food.
“I work on people’s farms. But because I am old now, they say I can’t work again. When I don’t find anything to do, I come back home and just sit with the kids, hoping on God and some people around for food” she said.
Nweke who explained that her daughter would not have died if they had a hospital in their camp said she began to have complications when she was due to give birth, and on the particular day she died, she was bleeding.
“I did not have money to carry her to the private hospital in town when she started having issues with her pregnancy and because there was no hospital around, we decided to leave her here and prayed she would get better and her child would come out” she said trying to hold back tears.
But Nneka died. Her child died too. And Roseline felt like the world had come to an end. The thought of how to take care of her grand children filled her mind every other day.
While Nneka was alive, she took good care of her children. She took care of her mother too. They were living happily. But now she is gone. There is no one to look after her children. There is no one to look after her mother.
“Now, I am left with the burden of taking care of her kids. It has not been easy for me in my age. “Her husband drinks and he does not even know he has children. He hardly comes around to visit them. And even when they go to see him, he sends them away” she said of her daughter’s husband.
Roseline’s story paints a picture of a camp where many women have died due to lack of access to health facilities to address complications during pregnancy.
I gave birth inside a wheelbarrow
Elizabeth Imo can’t still wrap her head around how she survived in 1976 when she was pregnant with her first daughter who is now 43. Imo explained that she was being taken to a private hospital- which is 3 kilometers away on a wheel barrow when she gave birth.
She said those who were around when she delivered her baby asked that she be called Uzoamaka- which is Igbo translation for the road is good- because the road was indeed good to her.
Subsequently, Imo who is the women leader in the camp has been giving birth to her children at home. But several women in the camp have not been as lucky as her.
She said there was another occasion when a woman who was being taken to the hospital on a wheel barrow during pregnancy died together with her unborn child and they had to bring her back to bury, after she was operated upon and the child was brought out.
“Because you can’t carry a pregnant woman on a motorcycle and our road is not motorable, wheel barrow becomes our only option of taking pregnant women to the hospital since there is none in the camp and that contributes to the many deaths we have as most of them die even before they get to the hospital” she said.
TBAs to the rescue?
Due to the complete lack of health facility, some women in Gabon camp- who can afford it- are having to depend on Traditional Birth Attendants (TBA) for provision of healthcare during pregnancy and other related ill health challenges.
But Mary Chukwu, a TBA who only recently came into the Camp, said women sometimes find it difficult to even visit TBAs even with the lack of health centre as they are always afraid of paying money.
“You know this place is a village and so before anybody decides to go to the hospital, or even come to us, the issue has to be very serious. In developed places, women who are pregnant go for anti-natal care. But here, you don’t see anybody. During pregnancy, some of them still remain at home” she said.
Chukwu who was attending to an aged woman when this reporter got to her said the only time some women run to her is when something terrible happens and they know they can’t survive without medical care.
But reliance on Traditional birth Attendants, (TBA) who often employ traditional and untested practice usually has harmful effects on the mother. They are also not effective in decreasing mortality during childbirth because of the paucity of knowledge and training in managing deliveries, understanding complications and referring patients with complications.
Chukwu said she refers them to hospitals when they come with their pregnancy issues and she discovers it is not something she can handle.
“As TBAs, we cannot do everything involved in child delivery. If a situation requires operation for instance, we can’t do it because we do not have an idea of how it works and we do not even have the facilities. In this kind of situation, we refer them to hospitals” Chukwu said.
A mother’s hope gone.
For minutes, Oluchi Nwoye lay sideways on what looks like a makeshift bed in front of her mud house which characterizes the camp. She has been trying to relievie memories of her daughter, Adanna, who died 3 years ago.
Nwoye will not forget the death of her daughter in a hurry, not after she had invested so much in her and was hoping to be taken care of in her old age. She is yet to wake up to the reality of her daughter’s death.
She explained that her daughter- who was 20 years when she died- only complained of little tummy issues when she got back from work on a certain Thursday evening in late November,2016.
“When she complained on getting home that day, our father who was home at that time quickly ran out to get some herbs and prepare for her. After she took the herbs, we discovered it was not working. We went out and got some drugs and gave to her, that did not work too” she said.
There was no hospital in the camp where Adanna will be taken to for proper healthcare and so, her parents had to resign to fate.They prayed she would get better the next day. But her situation was fast deteriorating.
As soon as it is 5am every other day, Adanna wakes up to do the house chores. She sweeps the entire compound and fetches water. But on this day, she did not wake up. Surprised that her daughter had not woken up to do her normal daily routine, Nwoye rushed to her room.
“I tried to wake her up, but she did not respond. I felt she was still fast asleep, having been tired and down the previous day and would wake up soon. But after some time, she still did not wake up. I hit her and she did not respond” Nwoye said as she tried to hold back tears.
Nwoye said she quickly called her husband and when he came in to her room, he confirmed that their daughter was dead. “I felt like sinking into the ground. I never knew I was going to lose her. Not after the promises she had made to me” she said, as little droplets of tears travelled down her cheek.
As if gasping for breath, Nwoye talked of how her daughter would always come into her own room each time she returned from work and they will discuss about the family and about what plans she had.
“She always loved to be around me. We joked and laughed together”. There was nothing she did not talk to me about. We were best of friends. I will miss her greatly”, she lamented.
Nwoye’s story paints a picture of a camp whose inhabitants have long been at the mercy of death due to lack of health facility and other features of modern day life. She tells this reporter that some families have buried 3 and some 4 of their kids due to sicknesses that could have been prevented.
Children lost to ill health
Little children in Gabon camp are not spared. Most of them have been lost to convulsion. But each time it starts, they resign to faith as there is no means of giving them treatment.
Imo recalls when one of her kids was down with convulsion. She said she would have lost him except for members of her church who came to visit that day and took the child to the hospital in town where he was given treatment and recovered afterwards.
“That day it happened, we lost close to 20 children. One of the women who gave birth to twins lost both of them that day. We were thrown into confusion. We have lost many children here and that is because most of us cannot afford medical bills for private hospitals, coupled with the distance” she said.
She can’t believe her son is dead
It has been three years since Obe Chinelo lost her one year old son. But she is yet to come to terms with the fact that he is dead and she will not see him again. She says he died after he was down with fever.
“When he became ill, we bought him some drugs and gave him herbs. But when we discovered it was serious and there was no hospital around, my husband quickly rushed him to one of those private hospitals in town with his friend” she said, trying to hold back tears.
Chinelo’s husband and his friend did not get to the hospital when Mmasichukwu died. He was tired already and could not cope any further. They had to bring him back home.
“We began to pray to see if he will come back to life again. But that did not work. I cried bitterly. But my tears did not bring him back. I did not believe my son will die at such a tender age” she said.
Chinelo was reluctant to speak at first. She did not want to remember that day when she lost her son. She said there are many private hospitals, all of which are located in town which is some kilometers away and sometimes, they can’t even afford the bills.
“We are not happy with what is happening to us. We need help. If there was a hospital here, my son would have been saved. He could not get to the hospital in town. He had to die”.
Nwaofia tried to save his daughter’s life.
Chinedu Nwaofia sits beside his shop in the camp. He is still trying to recover from the death of his three-year-old daughter who died in July after she was sick. He said his daughter only had fever and because there was no hospital around, he bought her drugs. But after she took the drugs, she did not feel any better.
“When I discovered the situation was getting worse and seeing that there was no hospital here, my wife and my mum took her to a private hospital in town. There they gave her some drugs. They also gave her oxygen and even blood after carrying out some test on her. I thought everything was going to be fine”. He said, his eyes beginning to gather tears.
Nwaofia’s daughter died after every effort. “I was shocked when my wife called to tell me she did not survive it. It was not what I expected. The small money I was making from my business finished, yet we could not still safe her life”.
Nwaofia blamed the death of his 3-year old daughter on the lack of health centre in the camp. “If there was a hospital, we would have taken her there when it first started so she can be checked and then, we know how to handle the case” he regretted.
He said the time wasted in carrying her to the hospital located about three kilometers away from the camp also contributed to the death of his daughter. “I am still trying to regain myself after the loss”.
Ijodo, only source of water for Gabon
The people of Gabon Camp have lived for years with no good water to drink. Located at the backwoods of the community is the Ekulu River and just before it is what looks like a small stream called Ijodo, upon which the people have had to depend. To get to where it is located, they have to walk some kilometers.
“What you see here is our only source of water” Moses Chinedu, Chief Security officer in the camp said pointing in the direction where Ijodo is located. “We fetch it and when we take it home, we try to filter it so it can at least be a bit safe before we drink.We don’t allow our children to come down here with their foot wears because of how important this source of water is to us” he said.
Chinedu explained that most times when there is heavy downpour and the water from Ekulu River overflows, it contaminates the Ijodo, making it difficult for the people to come and fetch water.
Inhabitants of Gabon, especially children have suffered varying degrees of illnesses such as body scratch, cholera, malaria and dysentery caused by drinking this water containing infectious viruses and bacteria.
There have also been several instances when those who were returning from fetching water, during late hours, come in contact with snakes and other dangerous animals. The situation becomes even worse during dry seasons when the River dries up. That means, no water.
He said that some families have had to leave the community because of the living condition. But “For some of us who do not have money to go anywhere, we are left with no option than to remain in the community and continue to go to farm and suffer”.
With no schools, the future of our children is threatened
When this reporter got to Gabon camp, most children were busy running around, throwing stones at themselves; others formed little clusters where they discussed and laughed when they ought to be in their classes, learning.
“Those ones you see running around did not go to the farm today. If not, you would not have seen anyone here. Most families here have decided to always carry their children to the farm where they work till the evening hours” Chinedu said.
Formally, some children in the camp attended a private school located at Ukwuorji. The school which is three kilometers away is owned by a woman known as Mama Ada. But parents whose children went to the school had to withdraw them due to the distance coupled with the fact that the road is usually not in a good shape each time it rains.
Priest to the rescue
Chinedu’s two kids only started school when Dr. Onuigbo, a Catholic priest decided, late 2017 to begin St Josephs Nursery and Primary School located right inside his church, St Josephs Catholic Church Station, Gabon camp.
Onuigbo’s decision to begin a primary school for children in the camp was informed by the need to help secure a better future for them. On several occasions when he visited his congregation inside the community, he saw kids playing around and when he asked why they were not in their classes, they told him they had no school.
Quickly, he thought of what to do and decided to set up the school right inside his church, with what looks like a makeshift class room located in front of the church.
Chinedu explained that Onuigbo only collects 2,500 as fees from parents because he needs to pay the four workers in the school and sometimes when villagers are unable to pay fees for their kids, he uses his personal money to pay workers.
He said that though the school is not up to standard, given the limited space and lack of basic facilities, they have to send their kids there to secure their future.
“Our kids feel the pain that they are unable to attend good school and get better education. But there is nothing they can do. We just have to keep managing ourselves”.
He said the government needs to come in and help. “We plead with the government to at least provide us with even if it is just primary school so our kids can acquire early education because if they don’t become educated early, it gets to a point when they lose interest completely and they begin to think of how to constitute nuisance”.
We only wanted to help these children
In an open space with just a roof top, Agu Godwin sits with books packed on his table. He has been marking and entering scores and grades of the pupils who are about to go on vacation.Godwin is the headmaster of St Josephs School.
A retired head teacher, Godwin said he accepted the offer to teach these kids because it was important to get them educated. He said he is only being paid a salary of N15,000 which is not enough for him to take care of his family. Some teachers here are paid N8,000.
Godwin who said they have not even been paid last month explained that the school has only four teachers. And among these teachers, only two went to school and have the necessary requirements for teaching.
“The priest had to employ those he can pay and some of us who were just willing to help these kids out” he said, adding that the school which began with less than 30 people now has up to 160 pupils. “That is an improvement and we do hope that more parents will try to send their kids to school to learn”
At St Josephs Nursery and Primary School, seats are inadequate and sometimes, children have to sit on the floor to learn.
“We thank God for another priest who recently brought some sits for the school” he said pointing in the direction where some of the kids sat.
With just one structure- the church and the makeshift classroom, teaching and learning is difficult for both the kids and their teachers.
“They are not just uncomfortable; we can’t even teach them all inside the church when it is raining for instance. It will be too noisy”
He said the government needs to come in and help them so they can improve because if they are allowed to grow without acquiring basic education at their tender age, they might learn bad habits and that will affect not only their parents but the country at large.
Orji Rosemary, another teacher said she wanted to make these kids feel like others out there which was why she accepted to come and teach them with the meager amount she is being paid. “We are outside when we should be inside teaching them. Most times, we combine our classes because there are no structures” she said.
The kids want more than they get
Emmanuel Nwaonwu is happy there is a school in his community at last. He was super excited when his parents told him in 2017 that he was going to continue his primary education.
He wanted to study and become productive to the society. But the reality soon unfolded when he came into St Joseph Nursery and Primary School and discovered that the school did not have enough teaching and learning facilities.
“I am happy that the church has made efforts to get us back to class, at least, I am learning a lot of things. But I am not happy because of the fact that we don’t have enough teachers here. Most times, we don’t get enough of what we need” he said.
Okeebube can recite the classes of food perfectly well. All thanks to the Catholic Church and Onuigbo for coming to her rescue. She wants to become a nurse. But she regrets that the lack of structures for teaching and learning is a huge problem that needs to be dealt with if they kids from Gabon must grow to compete with their counterparts.
“I want the government to help us put up befitting structures, provide us with boards, chairs and everything we need to make teaching and learning a whole lot of fun for us” she said in her traditional Igbo tone.
Chukwu Olisa now knows how the Biafran War was fought in 1967. He has also learnt how to keep himself clean. All of these would not have been possible had the church not decided to establish a school where he would come and learn.
He wants to study and become a Pilot. He says he is happy to be improving. But he regrets the state of his school. “It breaks my heart that what we have here is just one structure. We don’t have teachers. I want the government to build new schools for us, employ more teachers and buy band for us so we can be playing” he said.
With no electricity, use traditional lamps at night
As soon as it is 7pm, darkness envelops Gabon Community. Graveyard silence pervades everywhere because you hardly find anyone outside except those who belong to the neighborhoodwatch team in the community.
Chinedu who said they have not committed any crime, wonders why the government should not treat them like others, explained that since they came to settle In the camp, light has not blinked, except for those who have enough money to own generators.
“Many of us still use traditional lamps. If you buy generator here, you are considered a big man. Anywhere owners of generators put them on, you see kids flocking those places because most of them do not even know what a generator is, or what it looks like” he said.
We are no better than the IDPs
Johnson Nome is the traditional ruler of Gabon Camp. He says he has been in the camp since the 70s, pointing in the direction where his father built his own house before he died. He explained that they have been treated like they are living in bondage.
“We are not better off than those who are living in camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) because the government, both in the states where they are located and the Federal government would always send them relief materials to make them have a sense of belonging” he said.
He recalled that they visited the present state governor after the election where they celebrated with him on his re-election as governor, just to show how much they are involved in politics and their level of support for him.
“During the visit, we also made our requests known. We told him that we don’t have electricity. We don’t have health centre. We are not refugees and that we vote during elections, yet we are treated like thieves” But nothing has been done about” he said visibly irked.
A bit of government’ presence?
In 2017, wife of the state governor, Monica Ugwuanyi visited for medical outreach- the very first the camp has witnessed- haven heard of the sufferings of those in the camp. Nome explained that she gave them mosquito nets, medication and some food items and promised to help them build a health centre.
According to him, she said during the visit, that she had seen the extent of suffering they pass through and that she will do something about it.
“But after she came, we have followed her up. Yet, nothing has happened. We are still where we have always being. It is two years since she came. If she really wanted to do anything for us, she would have done it” he said.
He regrets that the only time those in government remember there are living beings in the camp is during build ups to election when they come to canvass for support and make promises they never fulfill.
“If you come here during elections, you will see cars packed everywhere and they belong to politicians who come to seek our support because we are too many. Whoever we give our support wins. But after they win, they don’t remember us again” he said.
No good access road.
Innocent Utobo, 48 sits in front of his house, his legs stretched out, his back relapsed into a plastic chair and his eyes looking as if peering into the future. He tells this reporter that the only time the road leading to the camp was made motorable a bit was when wife of the state governor, Monica Ugwuanyi came to visit.
But before the governor’s wife came for her medical outreach, they came together and built a bridge after tasking themselves N5,000 each. That helped mitigate some of the effects of the bad road.
“Formally, the road was impassable except on foot. We did not have any bridge here before. The road was divided and that made it difficult for us to go out. Most times when it rains, that part of the road that is divided is filled.
“We are unable to go out and sell our products most times. Our women are forced to carry their products on their heads and trek to where the market is which is far from here. Cars don’t come in here when it rains because they get stuck on the road”.
But Utobo never stops believing that someday, things will get better than they are now. “When the governors’ wife came to this camp, it took us by surprise because we were not expecting her. Great people will keep coming in to see what we are facing here and one day, decide to help us out”.
This investigative report was supported by the Ripples Center for Data and Investigative Journalism