Barefooted, 12-year-old Gabriel Mhilega runs around the unfloored family compound with his peers as he constantly adjusts his well-worn clothes. Intermittently, he scratches his skin, unbothered about the rashes that have settled on its surface. The schools have closed for holidays. Hence, Mhilega and his friends have more than enough time to play around the thatched mud house and visit the stream in Mbagule-Ipav, a community in Gboko LGA of Benue state.
In one part of the compound is Solomon Ker, his uncle, busy separating seeds from groundnuts in a heap beside him. At the other end is Icher Mfe, his grey-haired grandmother, sitting on a wooden recliner. Under the mango tree in the compound is Sarah Ker, his paternal aunt, who is setting firewood between three huge stones, on which she intends to place a pot to prepare food for the family.
Sometime in August 2017, Mhilega lost his father to an undisclosed illness and his mother subsequently abandoned him in the village. Since then, he and his four siblings have not set eyes on their mother. This meant Sarah had to move back to the village to take care of them. A few months later, Mhilega wakes up one night with severe stomach pains, one he is familiar with but it gets Sarah unsettled. There is no toilet inside the mud house. There is none in the compound either, so Sarah escorts him to answer nature’s call in a nearby bush.
Open defecation is common among residents of Mbagule-Ipav. Any available space, such as farms, footpaths, bushes, streams and rivers, easily becomes a makeshift toilet.
Done with the business in the bush, Sarah feels that should be the end of the stomach upset and they return to the hut to continue their sleep. The following morning, Mhilega runs back to his aunt to complain that he had just urinated blood. Sarah quizzes him further and she comes to the realisation that the young chap has been battling with the issue for a while.
“I was afraid. I didn’t know what it was or what it would turn into. I just prayed he doesn’t lose his life to the disease,” Sarah speaks of the incident in an emotion-laden tone.
When asked about his experience, Mhilega is reluctant to speak, ashamed to be asked questions about his genitals. After some prodding, he eventually responds in Tiv, his local language: “Whenever the sickness starts, I will be feeling severe pains in my private part and stomach; but with the medicine mama gives me, I get a little relief. But after a while, it would continue.”
The condition is not peculiar to Mhilega alone. Thirteen-year-old Cephas Samuel says he has experienced it “countless times”. Unable to succinctly articulate how he usually feels, he gestured with his hands to describe the intensity of the pain, saying it is as though someone is pounding him in a mortar.
“My stomach will be paining me as if they are hitting something on me. It is a very …….