It is a sunny Saturday morning in Sogunro, a slum on the waterfront of the Lagos Lagoon. Described as the Venice of Africa, this fishing village is built on stilts above the Lagoon. The flair of the busy women traders paddling with poise along the canal is strong enough to take our minds off the fear of losing balance on our not so stable canoe, as it glides through the reeking black waters. I can`t swim but I don`t care about the depth of the water underneath. My colleague Smeeta shows no iota of fear. Waste, environmental pollution and health hazards are lurking so strongly in the atmosphere but even stronger is the urge to have a firsthand experience of the work done by our guide and fellow changemaker, Vweta Chadwick in this relegated and unknown Slum.
Unclad and half-dressed kids shout greetings from one shanty to the other. They get even louder at the sight of my colleague Smeeta “Oyibo”!!!!!!!, a popular way of referring to a white person in Nigeria. Smeeta is Indian but the kids see her as white. We are told by Vweta that kids as young as a year old in this community are able to swim. "They learn how to swim before they can walk" She says..
With the aid of canoes, women vendors ply from place to place around the canal selling assorted items, creating a mobile market on water. The sight of a woman breastfeeding a baby while paddling a canoe loaded with cooked food for sale nearly throws me off the canoe! Vweta smiles and keeps taking pictures of Smeeta and myself in our marvel.
Sogunro has a population of over 3000. Rows of raised bamboo buildings with canoes anchored around depict a people in harmony with nature. Where all I fathom are health hazards, residents see a treasure-trove. They are clearly unperturbed by the slush around them. Groups of fifteen families are entitled to one community toilet. Waste water, excrement, kitchen waste, polythene bags and plastic bottles go directly into the lagoon. I leave aftermaths of heavy rains in this community to your imagination.
“This is where our ancestors lived, we love being here," says the community head, Chief Abraham Mesu. "We are fishermen and cannot live anywhere else. We must live on water.’’ Chief Mesu traces the origin of his people from Old Dahomey, now the Benin Republic, as far back as the 1890`s.There is no government presence in this vicinity, which is plagued by over fishing, population explosion and the absence of roads. Chief Mesu says they are in dire need of a hospital. He appeals to the government and NGOs to come to their aid.
Ahouansou Hausiwenne is a Traditional Birth Attendant in Sogunro. There are no hospitals, so she also attends to the health needs of the people. She is one of the 27 traditional birth attendants who recently received training from Project ASHA, founded and led by Vweta Chadwick. Hausiwenne says many of the women do not come for ante-natal consultation. They only show up at her clinic when it`s time for their babies to be born and sometimes they have complications that she cannot handle. When a case is too difficult for her, they have to rush the woman by canoe and then transfer to a car to get to the nearest hospital.
Although not voiced by any of the birth attendants we have talked to, I can smell high rates of infant and maternal mortality in this community where one woman has an average of seven children. One of our guides tells me that when the babies die they are tossed into the water beneath. Project ASHA provided 27 of these birth attendants with sterile kits and training to ensure proper hygiene during delivery. The feedback from those we have visited indicates that the training was extremely helpful and the kits were put to good use. Hausiwenne gives a broad warm smile when Vweta tells her Project Asha will soon open a cyber café for her and other women to connect with the wider world and tell their stories.
Speaking with about 40 teenage girls in the Community, we discover that majority of them have never been anywhere out of this slum and have never seen a computer. Teenage pregnancy is at its peak here. Most of the girls are unable to read and write, do not know their ages and have had no form of education or training. Unlike their parents, they are eager to leave Sugonro. They want a better life and for most of them that means life out of the slums. One of them walks up to Vweta and says “Aunty I will go away with you right now if you want to take me with you”. Three of World Pulse Nigeria leaders, Busayo,Olanike and Aramide who have braved this trip by crossing a very delicate bridge unable to hide their surprise when a very young looking mother of a 6 months old baby is unable to tell her age.The woman leader of the community is calling on the government, NGOs and good willed individuals to help provide education to the girls of Sogunro.
I describe the founder of Project ASHA,World Pulse Ambassador,!Vweta Chadwick as an embodiment of what World Pulse is all about. Thanks to her participation in the Voices Of Our Future training, she has been able to rebuild her self-confidence and gather the courage to use her voice as a tool for empowerment. A voice that was once silenced by a surgery and harsh cultural realities. This voice is changing the lives of thousands of people in the little known and abandoned Sogunro Community, thanks to the power of technology.