ZAMFARA POISON, AFTER DEATHS, VILLAGES FACE EXTINCTION FROM BIRTH CRISIS
You have known that death that lurked in the hills and rock crevices of the Zamfara State hinterlands went on spree and left hundreds either dead or devastated that their lives remain on the line. But you have not known a lot about the details of that mass death that ravaged these humble and backward locations.
Unknown to many is the truth that the cause of the death was not like a bomb dropped by a warplane flying over the villages. It is a disaster that incubated over ages and just exploded. It is a death factor that must possibly have been killing in the past unnoticed, and due to certain reasons the people who know better took notice of it today.
But worst of all, the villages that have their cemeteries littered with mounds over the little bodies of their children face greater dangers in the future. The dead is dead, but the living is not sure if life in these places would ever remain safe again. A tour of the region by Saturday Sun revealed a most shocking fact that lead poisoning or any other heavy metal contamination does not only kill, but leaves the spared ones with life long impairments. Therefore, beyond the hue and cry over death, treatment of the victims, miscarriages and remedies now being proffered the people have a worse danger of going to live with contamination of their water, plants, livestock, humans and earth where they grow their crops for food.
Already experts working in the area have expressed such fears that beyond deaths of humans, the villages lost livestock and even the surviving ones could be toxic for food while their crops are not spared. The further effect is that those livestock are not actually consumed in the villages but sold to other parts of the nation especially the big cities.
So, the larger Nigeria should watch it, and only the relevant authorities would intervene to save the citizens because the laxity that permitted the uninformed few citizens carry out their deadly mining may have created a larger problem for the entire nation's health safety. This region has a lot of cattle, goats and sheep and it's the mainstay of their economy. They sell them to make a living and when human beings in an area inhale contaminated air from lead poisoning and die, the animals are not spared. Moreover, the plants and the earth are affected and the animals feed on grass that grow on the toxic soil and are wholly part of the problem. It might sound alarmist, but it is true that all the people exposed to the possibility of eating the livestock from this region are prone to lead poisoning. A source in Anka LG informed Saturday Sun reliably that the villages also lost livestock to the toxic lead and such facts have not been actually looked into because the focus today is how to save lives in danger.
To make matters worse, the mining villages where death visited after losing their children might be in danger of losing their natural ability to procreate and replace the lost children. Some of the experts handling the rescue works revealed that the men are susceptible to high possibilities of impotence due to debilitating low sperm count and the women on likely track of no longer sustaining pregnancy in cases of conception.
Environmental experts Saturday Sun spoke with even in the villages and at the hospital where the victim kids are receiving medical attention expressed the same fears and advised that for a lasting solution the remedy should go beyond just soil replacement to a total examination of the humans to forestall a situation where the villages might have set itself on the course of extermination. One of the experts asked: 'Why the complaint today when we know that since the mining has been part of the communities, deaths must have been living with them as a result of the contamination therefore the people need far more than just an ad-hoc rescue and it ends there, otherwise no problem would have been solved.'
At the hospital, Saturday Sun met a man who came with the team of the World Health Organisation (WHO) medical workers who identified himself to Dr. Jane McKenzie, a Medicins Sans Frontierres (MSF) official as a PhD student in one of the universities in the north and a native of Zamfara State whose mission is to investigate the carcinogenic and teratogenic side effects of the poisoning. That already heightens the fears about the further damage the population may suffer from the incident. McKenzie however declined knowledge in such fields and rather said they have not actually delved into or thought of such aspects but sincerely wished that it would not come to that. Carcinogenic effects in simple terms are those capable of inducing cancer, while teratogenic effects are the combined consequences of consuming a harmful substance, such as alcohol, on a developing fetus.
The story of the deaths in these parts have reached the ends of the world, but not many actually know or read how exactly death struck at the heart of these tough environment. It is the story of a world located in the heart of the desert. That is generally the situation in Zamfara, one of the arid states of Nigeria. Living here is a challenge in all aspects. The dark tanned children of school age walking around barefooted and tending cattle, sheep and goat at school hours tells you exactly the level these people operate. It is actually a world that has not placed much value on changing some aspects of their traditions to advance. There is no overstatement that these places in Zamfara that death visited are one of the secluded and enclosed groups in Nigeria. They still hold dear all their identity have and may not be keen to let in some air of culture infusion.
They live in their humble homes made of mud walls created from the brown earth and mixed with straw for strength. With this mixture, a moat is built in small rectangles with between two and five tiny round huts capped with dry grass roofs. And for every of these homes that from outside gives impression that the houses are without roofs as a result of the higher moat walls, there are peculiar structures located outside the moats.
These structures are best described as inverted huge oval earthen pots with straw roofs. You would keep wondering what these ubiquitous 'pots' are and why they are everywhere until you get an explanation that they are grain silos where the people store their grains - the main farm output.
Within these walls live simple populations so thinly scattered over the land and located very far away from each other. But what holds them together is their general way of life - from language to architecture, economic mode and tenacious holds to their ways.
Underneath their scorched earth stripped naked of vegetation by scant rainfall are precious stones - gold, manganese, lead, mercury etc. The people know they have such wealth hidden under their simple homes and they face the temptation of reaching for it. Even the colonial masters mined precious stones from this belt as the deputy chairman of Anka Local Government Area where these death communities are located explained in his office.
It does not matter how these things are mined, but the people insist on having their gold their way. It is the old quest for gold that spelled the calamity. Therefore, no matter the seclusion and inaccessibility, these people still afford modern ore grinding mills. And Saturday Sun finding from locals and visitors is that in Dareta, Abare very close to it, and Tunga Daji all in Anka LG and Yargalma in Bukkuyum and some other hamlets around there, every home has at least one ore mill.
Alhaji Sade Ibrahim, an environmental health expert who leads the environment detachment of the Zamfara State and a director in the state Ministry of Environment said 'if you come to this village (Dareta) in the evening for instance, the noise and vibration emanating from the grinding mills fills your ear. Likewise, the dust from the mills fills the air that you can't see the sky. The dust rains down on the people, and all of them inhale it and death results.' The people have lived in this poison capsule created by them – stepped on it, breathed it, drank it, ate it and cohabited with it in homes and fed from soil also contaminated by lead poison. With time the lethal dosage rose to an alarming rate. That is how death came here.
This would not be far from the absolute truth as it was corroborated by Dr. Sa'ad Idris Dan Isa, Zamfara Health Commissioner who said the dosage kept rising until death came. 'Children have lesser surface area and body mass, therefore they were more vulnerable, reason they died more. But we have also tested the blood samples of the adults and indeed everybody in these affected communities. The first test samples were done in Germany, but today we have acquired the kits and handle it here. Lead is a type of accumulation that does not clear overnight, so the people have been treated and we will keep monitoring them until all are certified ok. And we know it will take some time.' No gold in gold land
Dareta, Abare, Tunga Daji and Yargalma and the other Fulani herdsmen settlements of Zamfara may have their underbelly laid with gold and other precious stones as the natives say they are nine of them certified already by the government as being abundant there. To reach the gold under their feet and put the resource into use, there are local grinding mills everywhere. In Dareta, at the outskirts of the tiny settlement of about 70 to 80 homes, some mills still stand undisturbed. But it is an annoying irony that the features of Dareta and the neighbours are the direct opposite of anything auriferous. They are bereft of anything of substance you can remember.
The road to Dareta and Abare, the closest to it is the kind that exists in a fiction story book. It is hard to find enough words to describe what is called road that leads to these settlements. That Saturday Sun or any aid groups reached these locations was because the rains had not come down recently. The little pools of water from the last showers still dot the short stretch of about five kilometers that takes over 40 minutes to cover. It is possible that the few sand fillings on about eight high culverts across the road at certain points that make a vehicle climb them like knoll barriers on the way must have been made possible by the US Blacksmiths Institute that brought in heavy trucks to evacuate toxic earth and overlay the community with clean soil. The culverts and the heaps of earth on them are so high that you don't see the deep at the other side while standing at one side. At a point on the way to Dareta, Abare and Bukkuyum, the nearby LGA that was also affected, you start to wonder if it's worth the trouble going to these places.
A native who accompanied Saturday Sun to Dareta and Abare sounded a word of caution not to be asked to take the reporter to Tunga Daji a place he said is visited at the peril of the visitor. Close to Tunga Daji is a market where the native said that anybody who gets there without a robbery attack on the way counts him/her self the most lucky. The attacks come severally in a day as he said and is made possible by the nature of the access road and remoteness of the location.
Any time it rains, no reasonable and even the toughest of adventurers would misapply his skills and drive in the direction of Dareta, Abare or Tunga Daji. It is just not a place to go. While they gain nothing from government as is visible everywhere, they reap death in bounties. And this ore mining of death has been the occupation of the people from ages. They make fortunes from the trade as locals and government officials say. But one of them added that 'you can't see it in their lifestyle. You have seen where and how they live. They sell the precious stones and make good money. Some of them and the agents that buy from them take the gold and other precious stones to all major cities of Nigeria and some export them to Chad, Niger and Burkina Faso. They invest the proceeds in buying more cattle and that is all.'
The health commissioner said ore grinding is an everyday thing and some of them that could not afford the mill pound the ore in mortars with pestle and later wash the crushed substance in the water of the green lake you must have seen in Dareta when you visited there.'
Today, the gold lands have turned ghost lands. It shocks to behold a broad litter of little mounds at the community cemetery in the desert hamlets. You count one-two-three-…20…60 and more. It shocks and chills to remember that under these little heaps of earth are little children whose futures were loaded with heavy lead that they buckled under the weights made manifest in spasms of convulsion, bronchial pneumonia, cold, vomiting, high fever and other clinical signs. It was as gory as visiting an air crash site or genocide ravaged place to be in those cemeteries. The village head stood gloomy and sulking while he gently pointed out the graves.
Among them are four having the little bodies of his children lying cold and decomposing. One of his family members was among the women that lost pregnancies. Another who refused to mention his name for fear of victimization lost his two children. That was all he had. And the man swore in low tone with misty eyes 'If I were not a Muslim I would have sued the government for devastation of my life and future. All the children I have are gone because nobody came to our rescue.'
Surprisingly, many children were seen playing around in Dareta and Abare during Saturday Sun 's visit. They are the diehards and remnants that never got enough lead loads to ground them. But the rest 200 children who died were not, while the 70 in hospital came neither here nor there. In the midst of a bevy of rescue workers and the noise from their activities, machines and discussions, a little boy of about seven had his unusual peace as he slept soundly lying face up with the left hand curled under his head under the shade of a tree. It was not his business if everybody in Dareta or the world was laden with poisonous lead. The young one is lucky not to be in the band of 70 wailing kids in the Bukkuyum Hospital where the medics pinch and pierce them to inject drug or draw blood from their veins. To the natives outside the hospital wards, life goes on uninhibited.
'The death is quite unfortunate and regrettable, but it is like a blessing at last the way things are turning out for our people. We have mapped out plans to ensure that the people are properly rehabilitated and empowered. We know that the mining, though illegal has been their major means of sustenance, so we have to provide them with alternative means of living. They will also get trainings on safe mining and also make sure they obtain licenses to do it the right way. The incident will attract them better hospital and water. We are already working in alliance with international humanitarian NGOs to actualize these steps. We can assure that the people and their communities will be made better.' These were the assurances the health commissioner gave in his office.
But before these lofty assurances bear fruit the death fields of gold remain a shame to any government. Yes, the Zamfara government or anyone at that would not have done much in the circumstances to stop the mining in these far flung places especially as the people see these ores as their heritage and means of living. These locations are at least three hours drive from Gusau. But in other areas of living, the people are so wickedly abandoned by the government at all levels that they can't boast of even a miniature primary school. Although the commissioner insisted the people have a health facility, but Saturday Sun did not see such during the visit to Dareta and Abare. The Anka council deputy chairman said they built a health centre in the area at the outbreak of deaths. Going to school for the children of these settlements is a dream world because there is no possibility that any child or parent can perform the feat of making it to school at the nearby Anka LG headquarters. The time of visit was school hour and the children were all at home playing around. To stretch the observation further, one would hardly remember spotting more than two schools on the major road of about 70km from Kadauri (where the road branches off on the Gusau-Sokoto road to Bukkuyum. Funny enough, at Bukkuyum there is an open space with a signpost of a junior secondary school very close to the LG headquarters at the opposite side. But even though the chartered cab that conveyed Saturday Sun stopped for a survey of where the school is, one could not locate a building that should serve as the school signposted.
It is certain that nomadic cattle rearing is the natural lifestyle of these people, it baffles an observer that little children were seen at every spot of the 70km stretch tending cattle. They were either moving along with them flogging their rear to fall in line or sat under tree shades watching them graze. Most of the children were between four and 14 and were mainly boys with a little percentage of girls.
The people are symbols of the typical political exploitation Nigeria is known for. They are no roads linking them to the outer world to an extent that only the routine medical visits to the people as was explained by the commissioner and consolidated by earlier interviews with doctors with the Medicins San Frontierre (MSF) and the vice chairman of Anka LG would have saved these communities from a worse scenario. They are so isolated and cut out from the rest of the state and the world that it is possible everybody there would have died without anyone noticing it.
But in all these neglected places, one thing remains a constant sight - graffiti of the state governor's campaign for a second term. The motifs bear an artistic impression of his face and a campaign slogan 'Girgije, MAS 2nd term'. On the native mud walls all along the road and settlements are these paintings and slogans. That much should be the gains the people have from their governor so far.
Saturday Sun found that the major way the governor of Zamfara State, Mahmuda Aliyu Shinkafi (MAS) remembers these wickedly neglected people is to sensitize them to vote him for another four years they are not sure of the benefits. This he does through his graffiti on even crumbling mud walls where they look ridiculous and out of place. MAS has not been moved by the plight of the people in these deaths to visit any of the villages. A civil servant in Anka asked Saturday Sun 'can you believe that the governor visited these villages during his campaign. He made them promises then of developing their communities and they are yet to see him again, even this time calamity befell them.'
Even the health commissioner who has been professionally up and doing in rescuing these people hasn't a figure of the population of these people they are designing their better future. He admitted that he hasn't that and only the relevant office could supply the figure.
The death incidents in Dareta and others did not occur in one fell swoop. It stretched over time but was not noticed or traced to lead poisoning. The health commissioner said his office visits these hidden villages often to attend to their health needs. During one of such visits sometime last year, they noticed a high case of children's ill health and some deaths but ordinarily administered the common drugs for fever and other prevalent ailments such as malaria. At another visit, they found the symptoms had not abated and decided to take blood samples to Gusau for diagnosis.
The screening of the samples indicated malaria which is common in the area and given the lifestyle of the natives. At another visit, the symptoms were still there and some more deaths of the children had been recorded even after malaria had been properly treated. The team in alliance with the health NGOs took some samples again and later detected bronchial pneumonia.
This was treated also, but in the course of the efforts the Medecins Sans Frontierre (MSF) officials felt alerted that all the children had similar symptoms of convulsion, high fever and eventual death was becoming more common. They stretched the search for the cause of death by sending blood samples from the children to a laboratory in Germany for a general test on possible causes of widespread convulsion and deaths among children. The results were startling as very high and lethal doses of heavy metal - lead were found in the blood samples of all the children. MSF came back in full force to the communities to commence a war against the killer. It was through this intervention that news of what happened was let out to the world via Reuters. The battle had to involve a larger team of experts which includes the state ministry of health led by Dr. Idris, the Federal Ministry of Health, Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), MSF, WHO and other NGOs.
Dr. Jane McKenzie at the Bukkuyum General Hospital where 70 children from the affected communities were evacuated to excitedly told Saturday Sun that 'two of the children who had minor symptoms had been discharged. The rest 68 are still in hospital, but after two weeks of intensive treatment, there has been no death. Our effort is paying and the combined battle against the disease is successful so far. We are happy that no child has died, and not just that, they are all responding well to treatment. We had to get the best drugs for lead poison treatment to tackle it. The drugs are expensive and not very common. Moreover, lead poison is not a kind of symptom that clears immediately. We expect the treatment regime will last one month. So far, they have been here for two weeks and we can't say for sure in the next two weeks they will all be out of hospital. We keep testing their blood from time to time until it clears. The level of lead in the children was alarming and the highest ever detected clinically. So, it would take time to clear totally.'
She said that their officials who work with the local authorities go round the villages for health inspection especially for cerebro-spinal meningitis at the time of the year it is prevalent. It was during such work that they noticed deaths among the children and sent their blood samples to Germany.
While interviewing McKenzie, a team of medical workers from WHO arrived at the hospital to assess the situation. The body of about six experts in various fields led by a consultant paediatrician sounded her out on the mode of treatment they adopt, the available equipment they work with, the progress and response and some other technicalities. By the time the WHO officials proceeded to the wards to see the children they had been satisfied by the explanations from McKenzie of the situation.
The Bukkuyum hospital is a modest facility maybe just adequate for the small population. Today, the seams are bursting with a kind of pressure never anticipated in the plans to set it up. It has acquired popularity as the media from all over the world converge there everyday to get the facts of the mass death.
The two buildings that contain about four wards are deluged with a high number of patients. Sixty-eight children are there with their mothers and maybe some few other family members still attached to their mothers. It's a cacophony of cries and shrieks and screams from them. It is possible to have all the 68 crying at the same time.
In the wards, the doctors go round attending to them one after another. The three canopy tents pitched as support facility to house the patients and their mothers are filled with people. The children take their turns to be pinched and pierced by the medics, and so they take their turns to cry. As they are led to the canopies to see the doctors, many have already started crying in protest, and by the time they are through with them, a tearful choir of wailing kids walking back to their wards is made. Not minding the protests and cries, the doctors don't relent in further annoying them to save their lives. In this task, the team has done so well and proud of the outcome. They are also cautious not to treat pregnant mothers as they say the drugs are too strong for their system, but some few breastfeeding mothers have been treated of the poison and have been cleared, as McKenzie told the WHO officials.
At the back of the hospital wards, the MSF had to put up a water borehole from which they procure water for the patients. They use their improvised facility of a plastic tube water tank hoisted on a wooden platform from where water is supplied the population.
Notwithstanding the lapses that would have led to the deaths, the rescue efforts are just commendable and encouraging. The joint efforts of Dr. Idris, the health commissioner who unsparingly applied his professional input, the WHO, the MSF especially, the Federal Ministry of Health, CDC an inter ministerial ad-hoc committee of the state led by Alhaji Ibrahim, the environmental health worker and the special adviser to the governor on special duties, the Blacksmiths Institute of New York led by Ian Von-Lindern have paid off in Dareta. The hospital in Bukkuyum is teeming with medical workers and other attendants to save the children and their relatives.
At Dareta the rescue operation is outstanding. The Blacksmiths Institute, an environmental engineering rescue organization works efficiently digging up the entire surface. The team has a Kenyan, Simba, who lives in USA, Daniel and a lady who now temporarily live in Dareta to scoop off the poisoned earth and replace it with clean one.
Von-Lindern said they were in Senegal on a work in line with their annual operations to work in third world countries for humanitarian assistance when they got an emergency call to Dareta to save another world. Their duty is to dig up the whole surface that is covered with lead dust and ash from the mills. They dig 8cm depth in the entire space of the village and a little beyond, remove the soil and bag them like valuable wares and take them to a site they dug where they are dumped. At the time of visit he revealed they had just done about 10 - 20 percent of the cleaning and need to fasten it up before the rains.
He ruled out possible cases of cancer from the poisoning and said if that could occur it would be among the direct miners mainly.
Three young men work in the toxic earth 'grave' with covered nose and mouth and gloved hands to open the bags and empty the bad soil in there. When the whole digging is done, the pit will be covered with clean earth. Simba, Dan and Alhaji Ibrahim, the environmental health worker and Director in Zamfara who had his education at the University of Benin repeatedly advise the three young men on hazard job not to wear the work dresses home, to always have the mufflers in place in order not to inhale the poisoned dust, to put on their special gloves and socks and drop them there in the pit after work to stay safe. And after their assignment, they will be tested and treated.
Four days after leaving Dareta, Saturday Sun was in touch with Ibrahim on the extent of work and found they were still digging out and filling Dareta where they started with the interior and exterior of the home of the village head. When they are through with the village, they will shift base to Tunga Daji, Abare and later Yargalma. Until this is done in all the poisoned villages the children in hospital won't return home as their cases would worsen if they come back to inhale lead once again, the rescue workers said.
The experts fear that the people of these villages must have been in for a long journey into health defects. As a result of the high dosage of the poison, the men are prone to low sperm count and in worst cases impotence.
The women would also have suffered fertility crisis as about 10 miscarriages had been recorded including a member of the village head's family. Dr. McKenzie of the MSF could not confirm the miscarriage case officially to Saturday Sun but admits that they have heard of that. But a man in the circle during the interview told Saturday Sun he met a woman who admitted having miscarriage a day earlier.
The children according to our findings after the treatment may still not be totally out of harm's way as there is the likelihood of brain damage and cellular and tissue deformities. If the fear of reduced fertility is real, that means the villages must have unwittingly set themselves through that 'harmless' mining on the path of extinction and self-induced genocide.
Breakdown of deaths
Between December last year and May this year, the Anka Council received three sets of visitors - all medical teams from the MSF, WHO the Federal Ministry of Health and CDC. The Anka vice chairman showed Saturday Sun a list of the experts on the visitors' register of the council and how they came in an interview in his office. The first batch of 15 experts including doctors and environmentalists came on December 9, 2009 from the FMH led by one Dr. Harris Akogun. They took even soil samples as the deaths persisted after the initial intervention that did not detect the source. The Anka deputy chairman said the council even had to build a health clinic there when the deaths proved intractable. He said a joint team of medics from the state and LG visits these places for immunization and measles treatment and in the course of the routine checks the killer problem was noticed.
On May 20 this year, another team of seven doctors from CDC came around and did the same in the first week of June before the final onslaught. During the visits the villagers showed the team tens of fresh graves where the latest victims were buried. The Deputy Chairman handed Saturday Sun the council's visitor's register to show the list of the teams and the days they came. All were there in the joint effort to find a lasting rescue to ward of the spirit of death stalking these villages.
From the counting of fresh graves and some other reported cases, Dr. Idris in Gusau said they traced about 165 deaths between sometime late last year and early June. He admitted that as at June 5, 355 cases of the poison effect had been detected and 163 deaths confirmed although it got the worst alarm of the situation on March 29 from the local authorities. But some natives put the death toll at about 420 in recent times and much more over the years.
'From the household survey, we observed that about 80 percent of children that died in both Dareta and Yargalma had preceding convulsion, which is one of the key features of lead poisoning. Most of the deaths (81 percent in Yargalma and 56 percent in Dareta) occurred within the last three months) Seventy percent of homes in Yargalma and 41 percent in Dareta recorded at least one death in children under five years in the past one year', Idris noted.
Lead poisoning (from wikipedia.com)
Lead poisoning (also known as plumbism, colica pictonium, saturnism, Devon colic, or painter's colic) is a medical condition caused by increased levels of the heavy metal lead in the body. Lead interferes with a variety of body processes and is toxic to many organs and tissues including the heart, bones, intestines, kidneys, and reproductive and nervous systems. It interferes with the development of the nervous system and is therefore particularly toxic to children, causing potentially permanent learning and behavior disorders. Symptoms include abdominal pain, headache, anemia, irritability, and in severe cases seizures, coma, and death.
Routes of exposure to lead include contaminated air, water, soil, food, and consumer products. Occupational exposure is a common cause of lead poisoning in adults. One of the largest threats to children is lead paint that exists in many homes, especially older ones; thus children in older housing with chipping paint are at greater risk.
Elevated lead in the body can be detected by the presence of changes in blood cells visible with a microscope and dense lines in the bones of children seen on X-ray. However, the main tool for diagnosis is measurement of the blood lead level; different treatments are used depending on this level. The major treatments are removal of the source of lead and chelation therapy (administration of agents that bind lead so it can be excreted).
Humans have been mining and using this heavy metal for thousands of years, poisoning themselves in the process. Although lead poisoning is one of the oldest known work and environmental hazards, the modern understanding of the small amount of lead necessary to cause harm did not come about until the latter half of the 20th