Globally, women of childbearing age and younger females, down to the school age girl-child, are usually the focus of conversations about water scarcity. There is little or no talk of elderly women in their sixties and above, who also deal with this challenge. Our reporter investigates the situation in the lives of three women, among the marginalized group in the discourse on women and water inequality.
“Water is life.” For octogenarian Hajara Musa in Ijabisa these words have a significant meaning. Her only hope of getting water, especially for her medication, is a trice daily trip away from her home and back.
Due to her condition, the 130 steps from her house took her fifteen minutes, with a walking stick, her bucket, holding a calabash inside, bopped along as she walked. Finally, she arrived a steep slope at the foot of which there is a shallow brook.
The climb down is tricky, so she tested the ground to ensure she has a good foothold. The ground was slippery so she took of her flip-flops and began climbing down supported by her stick.
“This is what I do daily,” she smiled. “Twice, on the days I don’t feel too strong. I have an illness caused by ‘aljannu’ (djinn) and I am the only one who can fetch the water I need for the treatment.”
The granny set her bucket down, before securing her walking stick in the ground. She exchanged pleasantries with a younger woman who was doing her laundry about seven feet away from where she began filling her 15-litre bucket with a calabash.
Done, she washed her face and then scooped some water to rinse her mouth, as a stream of the younger woman’s soapy water snaked past her feet.
Mission accomplished, she picked up the bucket, placed it on her left shoulder, took the stick and began the laboured climb, made more difficult by the weight of the filled bucket on her shoulder.
Twenty-three minutes after, she arrived, where she immediately swung into action putting her pot of herbs over pre-arranged firewood and lighting the fire.
In the neighbouring Zhiko, Binta Hamza, a great grandmother, is luckier as she does not have to make the onerous journey to the river every day. But she resents having to fetch water from the deep well in her compound.
Binta, who might be about 90-years-old, considers it her duty to provide water and cook for her household, that includes her younger brother.
“My children, grandchildren or great grandchildren help when they visit,” she said. “They fill up the containers and then I cook for them. When I am alone, which is quite often, I do it myself.”
This is in spite of the persistent back pain she suffers and attributes to the frequent bending over, for these chores.
Ijabisa and Zhiko are communities on the fringes of Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory in Bwari Area Council. It is a common sight to see women and girls with water containers, walking to their homes and/or farms. The men are usually washing their motorcycles by the brooks or have left for their places of work.
Our reporter met Shaizanzan Tokura at a brook in Pesepa, also in Bwari, where she had gone to wash two cups, two spoons and about five plates. Widowed and with all her children, but one daughter, out of home, she makes the commute to the brook twice a day to clean her utensils.
“This is what I do daily, otherwise, I would have a house full of dirty plates and cloths,” she said.
She added that, “Although walking for water, keeps me going, sometimes I don’t feel like it, yet have to do it.”
Carrying water, a pain in the neck
In her article, ‘Women carrying water, how it affects their health’ published in the ‘Waterlines,’ journal, Annie Dufaut, estimates that the average weight of water, women in developing countries carry on their heads is between 25 and 40 kg.
Such women, according to her, are frequently exposed to malnutrition, anaemia and water related-diseases.
In the journal for people involved in extending water supply, sanitation, hygiene and waste management to all in developing countries, Dufaut said, “The task of carrying heavy loads over long distances, requires a great deal of energy, which comes from metabolized foods,” like legumes, pulses and protein rich foods, among others.
“Women are most vulnerable to malnutrition at the end of the dry season which further exposes them to other diseases,” she said.
Beyond these, the women also complain of body pains.
Binta’s back and shoulders are the most affected.
“When the pains are light, I buy medicines from a chemist. In severe cases like last week, I go to hospital,” she said.
“You see these my knees, they are not good at all,” said Hajara, revealing her visibly troubled knees, with very unsteady hands.
Shaizanzan, who admitted that she is not at all a young woman, said, “The stress of assessing water for domestic chores, especially in the dry season, has further bent my back, worsened my body aches and left me weaker.”
Facts and figures
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 6 has set a 2030 timeline to “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.”
According to data, published by on the SDG website, “Three in 10 people lack access to safely managed drinking water services.”
Globally, there are 2.1 billion people daily battling access to clean, safe water and the challenge of accessing it, disproportionately levied on the female folk.
While the UN reports that between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of the global population using an improved drinking water source has increased from 76 per cent to 90 per cent, Binta, Hajara and Shaizanzan find it a laughable statistics when they think about their situation.
“This is my village, my ancestral home. The only functioning borehole here is one that was built by missionaries in the early 80s,” Hajara said.
“If other people in the world are happy because they are now getting water, me, I am suffering more and more, because my body is growing weaker and weaker from climbing up and down, every day, to get water,” she sniggered.
Elijah Okon Akpan is head of the elderly branch of Nigeria’s Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development, which is responsible for caring for the country’s elderly.
He explained that the Nigerian government has not built any home for the elderly and only supports what missionaries and NGOs built, across the country.
“We take care of people in old people’s homes across the country. There are 25 old people’s homes and daycare centres for the elderly,” he said.
“We [government] are not the ones who built them. Only very few states like Katsina, Niger and Kaduna have their own old people’s homes. We contribute to these existing ones.”
Once a year, he said the Ministry gives food like beans, rice, palm oil, honey and milk among others. The homes, for the rest of the year, are dependent on charity or self-generated funds, to run.
On the protection and care of widows, our reporter spoke to Idris Mohammed, Director of Economic Services of the Federal Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Social Development.
Speaking about facilities available to widows provided by the Ministry, he said, “The widows are being considered in terms of economic empowerment in the area of firstly training them and giving them starter packs like grinding machines, depending on what their business enterprises are.”
Again, another level of marginalization of this group of women in government’s attempt to improve quality of living.
Hajara does not know her age, but she remembers that as a girl in puberty, she helped in the family’s petty business using currencies such as ‘sisi’ and cowries long before the Naira.
Binta had had all her six children by the time Nigeria’s Civil War began. The youngest of her children is now grandmother to a 15-year-old.
Scratching her head and running her hand over her cheek, Shaizanzan said, “I have been in the world a long, long time.”
She was pensive before breaking into a smile, as her wrinkled face beamed in a way, which seemed to have been provoked by a fond memory from yester years.
The trio who have never heard of these government interventions, wonder how at their age and state of health, they would man grinding machines. However, they do what they can to stay afloat, to put food on their tables and clothes on their backs.
Shaizanzan sells firewood she fetches herself or her children buy for her. Binta retails petrol her son supplies. Hajara makes broom for sale, from palm fronds she fetches herself.
When government’s failure nips ambitions in the bud
Just as there are children in today’s Nigeria who have never seen water flow out of a tap because the only water sources they know are wells and natural water bodies, for these women, one could say it is a case of government’s inefficiency capping their ambitions.
While all three know what a tap is and basically understand what a water system toilet and a bathroom are, these are not facilities they considered necessary during the construction of their mud houses.
This is not because the structures could not carry or accommodate them, but like Binta said, “When am I ever going to get water running out of a tap inside my house or in my toilet, to flush it? [The thought] did not even arise when we were building the house.”
The outdoor pit latrines and bathrooms, cordoned off by corrugated roofing sheets in their backyards, along with the travels for water, are these widowed seniors’ life sentences, thanks to government’s inefficiencies.
Care for the elderly
Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution, Section 14.2(b) says the security and welfare of its people shall be the primary purpose of the government. In Section 16, sub-section 2(d), it promises that suitable and adequate shelter and adequate food, reasonable national minimum living wage, old age care and pensions, and unemployment, as well as sick benefits, will be provided to all citizens. The impartial manifestations of these are yet to be witnessed, as families have had to bear these burdens.
A consultant physician and geriatrician, Dr. Ogugua Osi-Ogbu, explained that physical activity is highly recommended for every individual, regardless of age. However, for these grannies, such physical activities should be optional, rather than obligatory due to lack of basic amenities like water.
Osi-Ogbu who works at the Department of Medicine, National Hospital, Abuja, said, “It is expected that at their age, portable water should have been provided. We encourage people to stay active even in the case of Hajara, whom from the description may be suffering from arthritis of the knees.”
As far as she could tell, the circumstances in which the women live, exposes them to certain medical conditions.
“It is not uncommon for rural dwellers engaging in such activities and for seniors at this age to suffer arthritis. It is a degenerative thing affecting all the joints of the body, especially the knees, hips and shoulders,” she said.
To cope with the pain, Osi-Ogbu suggested pain killing ointments be applied on the knee in the morning and evening as well as cold or warm compresses.
Hope, no hope!
Hajara’s son, Musa, searches for water in the belly of the earth. He has dug about 10 wells in the community but in vain. Due to the rocky terrain, they manually dig very deep, breaking through rocks, before they find water. However, their joys are short-lived as no sooner had they began counting their blessings than the soil around the well would cave in, filling up the hole. Some of these would-have-been wells are now refuse dump pits.
The Nigerian government doesn’t seem to have adequate plans for elderly care.
In 2016, the House of Representatives introduced the National Senior Citizens Centre Bill, which President Muhammadu Buhari signed into law in January 2018. The Act provides for the establishment of the National Senior Citizens Centre in the country to cater for the needs of senior citizens.
However, hope for Nigeria’s 9.6 million elderly citizens, seems to be deeming as nothing new has happened since the signing. There was no provision for the establishment of the centre in the 2018 budget.
While Eleanor Allen, Water for People CEO, in a Huffington Post interview said the global water crisis is considered the top global risk for the next ten years, the Abuja women know exactly what the solution to their problems are.
Binta lights up, clapping her hands in the air, saying, “Shin ba kudi ba ne? (Isn’t it money?). If I had money, I would pay somebody to fetch the water for me.”
For Hajara and Shaizanzan a tap with clean running water in front of their homes would make all the difference.
While Hajara is yet to visit an orthodox doctor for her illness, she looks forward to its end with her current herbal medication. However, until then, the journey to the brook to fetch water will continue.