Categories Archives: work

Springtime travels: water and sanitation in Nigeria

I’ve been traveling quite a bit over the past couple of months. Since March I went diving off the shores of Bora Bora, chased white tigers in the mountains of Sri Lanka, and talked to 12th graders in rural Illinois about the importance of sanitation in West Africa.

Haha! Only that last one is true.

So I don’t work as an exotic travel writer. I don’t think anyone actually has that job. It’s one of those fake careers that some jerk invented to make you feel like crap about your lame job. Like beer taster or Lamborghini test driver.

What I actually do is go to American schools with international-beat reporters to talk to kids about the issues. For example:

Ameto Akpe, a Nigerian writer for BusinessDay, a print daily out of Abuja. Ameto visited DC and St. Louis area schools with me (and spoke at Harvard) during a three-week trip to the US that was built around the DC Environmental Film Festival, held here in March.

Ameto has shed considerable light on the scarcity of clean drinking water and good sanitation in Nigeria, focusing on Makurdi, a city in the south that sits on the banks of the Benue river. The contrasts are stark: Nigeria is a relatively wealthy nation, with oil and gas exports enriching its state coffers, yet its infrastructure is in a sorry state. And Makurdi, with the voluminous river flowing around it, is unable to provide its citizens with safe water. Kids are dying from preventable, treatable diseases like cholera and dysentery because they are forced to draw their family’s drinking water straight from the river, which in addition to the city’s public drinking fountain also serves as its communal toilet.

Here’s a PBS NewsHour report by Steve Sapienza, who also traveled with us to St. Louis to talk to students:

Most American high school kids cannot find Nigeria on a map, and have no concept of what life might be like there. So you might say it’s a bit of a challenge for a Nigerian — or anyone — to explain a complex issue like water and sanitation access, which has its roots in a terrible lack of government accountability, in one class period. But that’s what we were up to.

Ameto, with the patience of Job, explained the pressures and contradictions that underlie these problems. As she pointed out to the kids, these issues are increasingly common in the developing world, and are likely to become even more pressing as people flock to cities that are ill-prepared to serve them safely.

We did about 20 school visits in urban St. Louis, rural Illinois, Washington, DC and suburban Maryland. How did the kids absorb it? Tough to say, but I saw a lot of interest and heard some great questions. Maybe they’ll be hungry to learn more.

A word Ameto often used in her class presentations was “however” — I think that says a lot about the difficulty in presenting these issues accurately.

There is wealth in Nigeria. However…
Makurdi is on a huge river. However…
Government officials have built a new sanitation plant. However…