By Roland Berehoudougou
Regional Disaster Risk Manager for West Africa
When the president of Cameroon spends a long time outside the capital city, something exceptional must be happening. President Paul Biya spent four days in North and Far North Regions, visiting areasaffected by flooding, comforting his countrymen and congratulating aid agencies for their hard work. As he was leaving Maroua located in Extreme North about 1100km north of the capital Yaoundé I was on my way to Kai-Kai, located close to the border with Chad.
When I was first told that I was going to ‘Kai-Kai’ it sounded like somewhere in China! I’d never heard of the little town in rural Cameroon before. But my colleagues told me "visit Kai-Kai and you will understand the gravity of the situation" and so I said “let’s go”. I have dealt with more floods than I can remember and for more years than I care to recall but I what I saw in Kai-Kai was unbelievable.
Torrential rains in Cameroon and neighbouring Chad and Nigeria coupled with the destruction of a protection dyke along the Logone River had submerged about 50 villages in this area characterised by its flat terrain. More than 67,000 people are homeless in this area alone.
As I was speaking with displaced people at a makeshift camp, a tiny female voice disrupted the conversation.
"We need pure water and mosquito nets, if not we and our children will die soon," said this woman holding a baby. She looked tired. Her baby was sick. Both were very weak.
I knew immediately that the problem was very serious because in this culture, women stay in the background and it is the men who speak. So when Fatima braved this to step forward and interrupt the conversation of the elders with this plea, I knew the situation was desperate.
She tried to smile, but I could feel the sadness, her eyes looked empty: "We were living in Socomai, about 10 km from here. We had everything there. We grew maize, sorghum, potatoes and cassava and reared cattle. One day the water level started rising. We fled. Everything is underwater now. The hippopotamus are eating our crops. Everything is gone. We have nowhere to go and are all living in a school. We have no sleeping mats, no blankets and no food."
Fatima urged me to go with her to the Kai-Kai Primary School to see for myself.
It was a small school with just six classrooms but it looked more like a little village. There were more than 600 people living in this six-classroom school along with bits and pieces of furniture saved from the flood along with their goats, hens and horses. When it rained, the animals go inside.
"They represent the only wealth we still have," said an old lady who was trying to smile with me.
Just 10 metres from the classrooms was the surreal sight of boys casting their nets trying to catch fish. The building is protected by a mud dyke.
It was unbelievable – 600 people living in a 200 square-metre space. It must be the most densely populated place on earth and violates all humanitarian guidelines for emergency shelters.
"Where else can we go?" said Mamoudou, 70, "we pray and hope that it will not rain in the coming days," he told me.
More shocking and totally unbelievable is the fate of the adolescent girls.
In this space, you see very young girls and more mature women collecting water from the school borehole.
"Where are the young girls and adolescents?" I asked one mother.
"This place is not safe for them, to prevent them becoming ‘spoiled’ by men here. So we sent them to live with our neighbouring families," she replied matter-of-factly.
Later, I learnt that these girls are all on "the market" just waiting for marriage proposals. To save their families from shame and protect their girls from sexual abuse they are prepared to offer them for early marriage to anyone who could offer a dowry.
A spot of land has been donated by the authorities for them to resettle. Residents of this crowded spots are moving out to build grass huts for their families to protect them, safeguard their animals and hope that it won’t rain as their huts are not waterproof.
Plan is providing emergency assistance to these families including food, sanitation and personal hygiene kits, water disinfectant, temporary learning spaces for children and school supplies.
See also Katie Tong's blog: Cameroon floods child-brides-in-waiting who visited KaiKai days before Roland Berehoudougou.