BENIN Surviving the Oueme river

 Benin
 Emergency Response
 26th Oct 2010

By Loetitia Raymond, CARE International

On the banks of a shaded pier, the few pirogues (local canoe) are still motionless in the sunny morning of yet another October day. Soon, the silence of the sandy piers will be replaced by a happy hubbub and conversations of women who will step over the many hulls to leave dry land and head back to their flooded village.

46 women wearing loincloths with bright shades of green, orange and yellow are sitting on a pile of bamboo a few metres from the boats, waiting for today’s CARE distribution. Josiane Hounsou is amongst them, waiting for the water purification tablets, the soap bar, the two mats and the sheets that will allow her to consume drinking water and to not sleep on the ground. This 30-year-old young woman oozes seriousness but also sweetness. Early this morning, she sailed a pirogue out of Kodonou, the flooded village where she lives, to come and collect the valued hygiene kit. The pirogue is the only transportation means linking up the isolated houses in every affected village on the lake banks.

When Ahmed Lafia Sero, the person in charge of field facilitators, asked for a volunteer to show the others how to use the products, Josiane, who was waiting, almost absent-minded, got up in a hurry and said “me!” She cried it as if her life depended on it, as if all of a sudden she had found a reason to live. The young woman proudly steps forward, stands straight and looks up and down at the group of women with confidence. Every distribution comes with an awareness-raising session about hygiene, which shows the importance of washing one’s hands, and how it reduces considerably the risks of contamination.

Josiane raises her arms, doesn’t hesitate to arch her back, soaps her wrists over and over, shows how to rinse them well whilst Ahmed explains “you mustn’t dry your washed hands on your dirty loincloths, that’s no use!” The women are attentive and laughing, sometimes teasing. Once in a while, big bursts of laughter come from all sides under the huge mango tree hosting the event. Happiness is palpable, this relaxed moment is also a promise for some comfort and spiritual peace. The same peace that Josiane had lost when the flooding devastated her village.

As with the other near-1000 villagers, a big part of her goods were carried away by floods, and she has almost nothing left. “My husband is a fisherman when there’s water, and a farmer when the water leaves. We had put aside the food for the rise in water level period, and everything was lost,” she explains.

The first emergency for these men and women is to find a shelter out of the water’s reach, but above all to feed their family. The little amount of money available is used to buy food, but there isn’t enough to give the children enough to eat. Her family is only allowed one meal a day, sometimes two, but not more. So buying soap or products to make the water drinkable is out of the question. Josiane is conscious of the danger caused by the water. She confesses, resigned: “I know we shouldn’t drink the water that surrounds us, but what choice have we got?”

But the water used by all these flooded communities is a real danger. This water where animals died, where people relieve themselves, is used today for drinking, washing and cooking. A real threat exposes them to water-borne diseases: “the water is cloudy, the children are ill, they have diarrhoea, fever and I don’t have money to take them to the heath centre,” the young woman explains, feeling sorry. Even if she could, the great majority of access to health is paralysed because of the occupation of public buildings by the displaced people. Because they don’t have any other solution, the women practice self-medication for their children. After a 20-minute trip in a pirogue towards the flooded secondary school where she lives with other families, Josiane shows what helps to treat her little ones. On the bottle of vitamin additive that she delicately takes out of a piece of material, wrapped up as if it was a treasure, you can read a big “do not give to children”… but Josiane doesn’t know how to read. This risk-taking can cost a lot to her children’s health, but also first drains her purse: “I have to ask credit for the pills, as for the rest. And everything costs us an arm and a leg, what cost 50 before the flood costs us 75 now because they know we can’t do anything about it,” says Josiane, weary.

So this hygiene kit is a bargain for the young woman who expresses her relief: “I never could have bought these things, I lost my tranquillity, I don’t sleep well. This will help me be a bit more calm, a bit more secure, sleeping on a mat will give us a bit more comfort, and the children won’t be as ill now that they have clean water.”

When the young mother lifts on her shoulder Géraldine, her youngest 15-month-old daughter, a tender smile eases her worried face. Outside, the pirogues come and go between the two worlds separated by huge expanses of silt-laden water. Until the water level drops, they will continue to connect earth to these forgotten little islands, where the victims of the Ouémé river live, walled in a water cage with no roof.

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