“Have you washed your hands?” the headmaster of a primary school in a village in northern Nigeria asked 160 children standing in line one morning before starting class.
“Yes master!” answered the youthful, enthusiastic crowd.
This daily ritual has become a game, said Sani Marafa, the headmaster at the school which is in Lokoto, a community of some 50 mud and brick houses 20km from Niger State’s capital, Minna.
“The children weren’t used to washing their hands in the morning,” he told IRIN. “They didn’t know the importance and benefit of using latrines.”
He showed IRIN many drawings he uses to explain basic hygiene to students and little games he has devised.
But it is not just games and drawings that have improved the hygiene of Lokoto. Water came to the village in 2003 when Niger State government, with support from the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), bored two wells in the village.
Before that, villagers would walk 3km to the river to find drinking water and bathe. “We used to take leaves or maize sticks to clean ourselves after defecating,” Shiatu Sule, one of the residents of Lokoto, said with a little laugh.
Now she and her seven children are using water to clean themselves and they have latrines behind their house. Next to her front door hangs a poster explaining the proper use of a latrine.
Behind the school are two neat latrines: one for girls and one for boys. The sandy field in front of the school where children now play used to be covered in rubbish but is now clean.
Most importantly, school attendance has improved, said Marafa. “Infectious diseases like diarrhoea have nearly disappeared,” he said. “I really see a difference.”
Link between sanitation and productivity
Unlike the people of Lokoto, most Nigerians still lack access to so-called “improved sanitation facilities” such as running water and proper latrines.
“Over 10 million productive days would be gained [in Nigeria] if access to both water and sanitation rose to 100 percent,” UNICEF country representative for Nigeria Ayalew Abai said recently.
Diarrhoea remains one of the main causes of child mortality - “yet it is so simple to avoid it by washing hands before eating,” UNICEF spokesperson in Abuja Christine Jaulmes, told IRIN.
Every year around the world inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene contribute to the deaths of 1.5 million children, while an estimated 42,000 children and adults die each week from diseases related to low water quality, the UN says.
The UN has made 2008 the International Year of Sanitation in an attempt to accelerate progress for the 2.6 billion people worldwide who are without proper sanitation facilities.
In towns in Nigeria, tap water and latrines are often not available. Fatima Mohammed, in charge of health education for Niger State, told IRIN that in parts of Minna “people would use what they call the ‘flying toilet’,” she said, explaining, “You defecate in a plastic bag and throw it away.”
“Sanitation is a difficult subject,” Jaulmes, of UNICEF, told IRIN. “It touches private aspects of people’s life, but it is a crucial issue to reduce diseases like polio, typhoid, dysentery or cholera.”
At first locals in Lokoto resisted having latrines next to their houses, Fatima Mohammed said. “They believed that evil spirits dwell in dirty places.”
The first latrines there were built next to the school in 2005. The population could go there and try them out, she said. They started to realise that it was easier to go there than to walk to a field.
In 2003 UNICEF and the state government also created a so-called “wash” committee, which included the training of local leaders. “[Before that] everything was dirty with a lot of garbage,” she said, comparing the village to when she first came there in 2002.
The “wash” committee has built pits for refuse, which is composted and used as fertilizer. This helped convince local farmers that it was worth collecting garbage, she said.
Lokoto still has hygiene problems. Rubbish is often strewn around the refuse pits and elsewhere in the village. Plastic bags hang in trees.
“There is still a lot to do”, Fatima Mohammed said. “There are things we consider as rubbish but they don’t.” During mango season villagers leave mango skins everywhere, she said. “They don’t realise flies could contribute to the spread of disease.”