In early 2017, 28-year-old Selina Night and her nine children fled her hometown in South Sudan following a flare-up of violence. “The sound of gunshots would ring in the air every night. There was fear and uncertainty. We feared for our lives.”
It took Selina about one week to reach the South Sudan-Ugandan border. She witnessed many people die while trying to reach safety in Uganda. “We would trek at night and hide in the trees during the day. We carried some dried millet and sim-sim, which we fed to the children to keep them from starving to death,” she says. To keep from being dehydrated, they would fetch water from rivers and streams to store in plastic bottles.
Lack of hygiene during conflict
During the journey, Selina experienced stomach discomfort after drinking the unsafe water. She also experienced lack of energy and diarrhea and relied on others for help during the journey. After three days of hardship, she regained her health. Others were not as lucky. Many people died as a result of water-borne diseases like Cholera and diarrhea. “The water from the rivers was not clean. People used the same rivers to drink from, bathe, pass stool and provide for their animals. Many deaths were a result of lack of hygiene,” Selina says.
Selina explains that while people were fleeing, circumstances were such that they had no other options than to drink the dirty water from the river. “There was no time and no luxury to boil the water or look for cleaner water. As a consequence, people succumbed to sickness and death,” she says. Cholera and other acute water-borne diseases are often hidden causes of deaths during conflict, as all attention is focused on guns and marauding militias. “Media and the international community only starts sounding the alarm when people start dying, and sometimes it is already too late,” Selina says.
Determined to keep her children safe
Selina lives with her nine children at Bidibidi refugee settlement, where she has spent the last one and a half years. Her husband lives with her at the settlement, but he spends most of his time away from the family, looking for casual jobs to earn some income. He constructed a 3-metre deep latrine for the family. Selina takes care of the latrine. She keeps it clean and ensures that there is water in a jerrycan to wash their hands afterwards. She lives 20 metres away from a borehole that provides clean water for her family’s hygiene needs.
“A clean latrine is important for hygiene. Without a proper toilet, people turn to open defecation, and this increases the risk of disease outbreak. House flies visit such locations and spread contamination when they settle on cooked food,” she explains.
Educating her children
Selina is a great believer in education. Her eldest daughter, Harriet, is a 6th class student at Lizira Bright Academy. Harriet learns about hygiene and sanitation at school. She has been taught how to wash her hands properly, and why it is important to keep her hands clean.
She passes the message to her mother and siblings in the evenings when she returns home. “Knowing how to plan my cleaning sessions helps to include the activity in my normal routine,” she says. As a result, the latrine in Selina’s compound is one of the cleanest in the entire Bidibidi refugee settlement. Not a single housefly can be seen around or inside her toilet. The latrine emits no foul smell, a rare spectacle in a refugee camp.
While she can talk about the present, Selina is not very sure about what the future holds for her family. Like most refugees in the camp, cycles of violence in South Sudan have left her uncertain about her country’s future.
“We will stay in Uganda until they stop fighting in South Sudan. How will I know if there is peace? I think it will be announced on the radio that the fighting has ended and people can return,” she says. With support from European Commission Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid (ECHO), the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) will continue to support Selina to regain her dignity and humanity.
NRC is supporting hygiene and sanitation of refugees in Bidibidi settlement by providing clean water from boreholes and water purification facilities. The water, sanitation and hygiene mobilisers conduct hygiene and sanitation awareness campaigns across the settlement every two weeks whereby refugee and host community members gather to share views and get clear messages on keeping their surrounding clean. NRC also supports hygiene in education by providing classroom lessons and supporting hygiene clubs.
Being the lead agency in hygiene and sanitation, NRC is working in consortium with Action Against Hunger (ACF) and International Rescue Committee (IRC) in ensuring that refugees in Bidibidi are safe from cholera and other water-borne diseases that often result in death or critical medical conditions.