Reflections from a Journey to Wassa IDP Camp: Can we all do more?

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Directions to the Wassa Internally Displaced Peoples Camp, Abuja, seemed straightforward; “Get to Apo Mechanic Village. Keep driving until you come to the end of the tarred road, and continue on the dirt road for several kilometres. Make a left turn, and continue down that road until you get to Wassa IDP camp.”

Simple, right? Well, neither I or my team members had been to the Apo mechanic village and so we didn’t know what to expect. Our taxi driver had never been beyond the mechanic village but it was an opportunity for him to make a quick buck, so he agreed to take us. We were headed to the camp to document an outreach by a consortium of organisations including Non-Governmental Organisations, Civil Society Organisations and Foundations, who had come together to give succour to the IDPs. The outreach was co-organised by Pathfinder and the family of one of their late colleagues, Dr. Fatima Tumsah, fondly known as “Dr. Teemah”.

Every year, on the anniversary of Dr. Teemah’s death, her legacy is celebrated in IDP camps. Photo credit: Nigeria Health Watch

The Late Dr. Fatima Tumsah was a medical doctor whose research focus was on reproductive and sexual health. Until her death two years ago, she worked as a Project Officer at Pathfinder International. Colleagues and friends said Dr Tumsah had a deep passion for adolescent girls, women and children and a heart for IDPs. Her brother, Usman Tumsah, described her as a humanitarian, always ready to reach out to anyone in need. “After her death, we felt the need to continue with the good work that she had been doing and so we were glad when Pathfinder suggested that we come together to do this”. Every year, on the anniversary of her death, Pathfinder International, in partnership with her family and several other organisations, plan an outreach to a different IDP camp to celebrate her legacy by reaching out to the very people she cherished in life. This outreach to Wassa IDP camp commemorated the second anniversary of her death.

We had left the Apo Mechanic Village behind, houses were becoming sparse and vegetation dense but there was no sign of the dirt road which was our main pointer. The ‘Okada’ riders we stopped to ask assured us that we were on track and so on we drove until finally, we glimpsed the dirt road from afar. But our relief was short lived as we saw that the ‘road’ was nothing but a stomach-churning combination of ridges and gulleys, with actual ‘road’  few and far between. Grumbling under his breath, our taxi driver threatened to turn back because it was more than he bargained for but a deal was a deal and so he had no choice but to drive on, even if reluctantly. It must be a tough journey out of the camp for its inhabitants.

We finally got to the Wassa IDP Camp, home to Internally Displaced Persons from Borno, Adamawa and Yobe with a population of over 5,000, about 70 percent of whom are women and children. A brief chat with the camp chairman revealed that it was a rare occurrence for them to have visitors. Because of the location of the camp and the fact that the access road is very bad, the IDPs here are often neglected.

Women at the Wassa IDP camp waiting to receive food and clothing items. Photo credit: Nigeria Health Watch

Deep in the crowd of mostly women and children, staff of Pathfinder International, members of Dr. Fatima’s family, representatives of TY Danjuma Foundation (TYDF), Vitamin Angels, Marie Stopes, National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), Society for Family Health (SFH), Planned Parenthood Federation of Nigeria (PPFN) and other partner organisations were already hard at work. Dr Farouk Jega, Country Manager, Pathfinder International, said that Wassa Camp was chosen because of the huge number of women of child bearing age, children under 5 and their immense needs. The number of pregnant teenage mothers here was alarming, with some having as many as 5 children before they turn 25.

The needs in Wassa IDP Camp are overwhelming. According to Geoffrey Bulus, the camp chairman, “Our major challenge is water. Although we have about 5 boreholes, we do not have electricity to pump water so the people get water from the stream. In October 2016, we had a cholera outbreak because of the quality of water we were drinking. Our children are not getting any education because we don’t have access to any schools. There is also no health facility here. We transport ourselves from Wassa to Waru, which is the closest community with a health facility but a trip costs 300 Naira each way and we can’t afford it because we do not have anything doing. It is also not good for the pregnant women because the road is too rough.”

Every child at the Wassa IDP Camp left the venue with a gift. Photo credit: Nigeria Health Watch

Food is also a major issue. Suleiman Yakubu, Program Coordinator for Vitamin Angels revealed that, because the people were restricted to a particular diet, the children were showing signs of stunting and wasting. The camp chairman confirmed that they did not have enough food to meet their needs as most of their diet was made up of corn and rice.

But today, the air was rife with expectation as women and children gathered to receive free health care services, family planning, HIV testing, food and clothing items that Pathfinder and her partners had brought for distribution. Despite the large crowd the partners were able to keep order and every woman and child left the venue with a gift.

For Late Dr. Tumsah’s brother, the experience has been bitter sweet. “It’s been a painful thing to do this every year but it’s also been fulfilling to try and make people happy on her behalf. Insha Allah (If Allah wills it), we hope to continue doing this for as long as we live”. Dr. Farouk Jega added, “The huge need is overwhelming and it is a lesson for us to be better prepared next time. As long as I remain with Pathfinder, we will continue to honour and bless the memory of Dr Fatima, at this time, every year.”

Do what you can, where you can and when you can. Photo credit: Nigeria Health Watch

Driving back home at the end of the day, I remembered a quote by Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, “While every refugee’s story is different and their anguish personal, they all share a common thread of uncommon courage – the courage not only to survive, but to persevere and rebuild their shattered lives”. And I could not but salute the courage of these displaced Nigerians living at the Wassa camp who in their quest to live an ordinary life, show extraordinary courage.

So, what happens now? This is a call to action to the government. The “internally displaced” have been through a traumatic experience and we cannot put them through another, especially the women and children. Until the IDPs here at Wassa and at other camps can return to their homes, it is the Nigerian government’s responsibility to ensure that they have adequate services – health, education, water, electricity and sanitation.

This is also a call to action to us all – organisations, companies, hospitals, religious bodies, groups and individuals. It is also our responsibility to ensure that the needs of the vulnerable in the society are met. Be inspired by the legacy that the Late Dr. Fatima Tumsah has left behind: Do what you can, where you can, when you can, and how you can.

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