At least four young children died in June in Nqileni Village on the Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast after drinking contaminated water from springs and streams villagers share with animals. However, their deaths have gone unnoticed as local government has failed to bring any services to the rural village.
Nqileni is in one of South Africa’s poorest districts. There is no running water, no clinic, no school, no toilets, no electricity, no road, no telephones – in fact not one municipal service. The police can’t get to the village anymore because there are no roads and there have never been ambulances.
The Mbashe district, under which Nqileni falls, did not spend a single cent of a conditional grant to address backlogs in municipal services. Instead, over R55-million was returned to National Treasury for redistribution to other municipalities across the country with good spending records. Mbashe municipal manager Charmaine Vusani was recently reported to have asked for help from the provincial treasury. However, she did not respond to queries from Health-e.
One of the aims of the conditional grant was to eradicate the bucket system. But, says local resident David Martin, ‘the bucket toilet system would represent a giant leap forward in sanitation’. Three years ago, Martin and the Nqileni community started Bulungula, a backpackers lodge, that they co-own. Bulungula is the only source of development in the area, but its success depends on tourists being able to reach the lodge.
Although it is off the beaten track, Bulungula has been voted as one of the earth’s ‘must see’ destinations by the world’s top travel guides, including Lonely Planet and The Rough Guide. The picturesque village with a population of 750, of which half are under 15 years, is perched on the edge of one of the world’s most breathtaking coastlines.
But for the villagers living among the rolling hills, fighting for survival has become a daily reality. Nolibele Debe shuffles into the room and pulls the towel tighter around her shoulders. She slowly lowers herself into a chair and stares at the crashing ocean outside the window as she relays her story of anguish and sadness. She bangs her fist against her chest as she tries to communicate via an interpreter the ‘pain of my heart’ at losing Liya, her firstborn grandchild at seven months. He fell ill on a Wednesday night in June, his tiny body wracked with pain from the vomiting and diarrhoea. By Thursday at 4am, the baby boy was dead. ‘He was never sick before,’ Debe says.
Asked what she thought had caused the diarrhoea and vomiting, she doesn’t hesitate. ‘It’s the water,’ she replies, describing how they would fetch the water from the spring she used as a child, and using it to mix the baby’s formula feed. It was not possible to get the baby to Nkanya Clinic.
‘We could have walked to the Xhora River, but the man who runs the ferry isn’t there at night,’ Debe says.
Even if the ferry had been operating, the women would have faced at least a two-hour walk in the middle of the night though several plunging valleys.
Martin says it has become a common occurrence for him to race sick villagers to Madwaleni Hospital in the middle of the night. Another option for villagers is to walk to another village where the taxi driver charges R650 for a one way trip to the hospital. As rain started to fall, Martin frowned: ‘In four days time, we will have children dying from diarrhoea,’ he said.
While the rain is welcomed by the villagers to boost their crops, the rain also brings death as human and animal faeces are washed into various water sources. Dry periods also draw cattle to the drinking sources, causing contamination.
Previously pigs used to eat the faeces, but all the animals were put down by the Department of Agriculture earlier in the year following an outbreak of swine fever. But anyway the pigs had caused another problem. As there are no toilets, villagers use the forests. But the pigs ate the sewerage, the people ate the pigs. This caused cysticercosis, a condition in which tapeworm larvae lodge themselves in the brain forming cysts that cause chronic epilepsy.
After HIV, epilepsy is the second biggest health problem in the Nqileni area and some of the local doctors claim that 8 out of 10 children are affected.
It was shortly after the pigs were put down that the Nqileni children started dying. According to villagers, four children died in June and all showed the same deadly symptoms ‘ vomiting, diarrhoea and fever.
If they had had access to primary health care, simple rehydration treatment would have saved their lives. Nofundile Sipatana’s hut is perched on the top of a hill with sweeping views of the coast. Sitting sideways on a grass mat, she straightens her bright red T-shirt and shakes her head. ‘My son was sick because of the water,’ she says matter of factly. Unlike Debe, Sipatana did manage to take two year old Siphe to Nkanya clinic. The youngest of her nine children, Siphe had diarrhoea and vomiting. ‘At the clinic they told me to put this powder (rehydrate) in his water, but a few days later he was dead.’
Sipatana said his death had left her angry and she had vowed never to draw water from the spring again. ‘But I had to go back there,’ said the mother.
Debe, Sipatana and two other women buried their children in their yards. The deaths were unrecorded and unnoticed, except by the villagers.
‘I don’t know if people really realise what it is like to see your child dying and there is nothing you can do. There is nothing you can do,’ says Martin, his green eyes flashing. Martin fears that the deaths of children is almost normalised in this village. ‘There is a woman in the village who had 10 children, all of whom died. It is normal to meet people who have had children dying,’ he says. He believes the reason why no-one really cares is ‘because our communities are voiceless, they suffer in silence. If they burnt tyres in protest on the nearest the road, the only people who they’d bother is the poor taxi driver who’s struggling to survive himself.’
Another immediate concern is that the ‘road’ to Bulungula, only accessible by a ‘serious’ off-road vehicle, is rapidly deteriorating as seasonal rains arrive. Villagers are concerned that their livelihood is on the line as tourists will not be able to reach the lodge. Of the 19 people employed at the lodge, 18 are from the village. A further 20 people run their own tourism businesses from the lodge. Altogether they support one-third of the village’s population.
The local school building also finally collapsed a few weeks ago. The teachers only come to school for three days a week at best, and then only if it’s not raining as there is no building and kids learn on the grass outside. On a positive note, the Department of Education is working with the Bulungula team to rebuild the school.
Gail Pullen, spokesperson for the Amathole District Municipality (under which Mbashe falls) said she was not sure where Nqileni was.
She referred the bulk of the question to the Mbashe municipality, which failed to respond to any queries. ‘Our district’s key role is water and sanitation. Roads and electricity are the responsibility of the local municipality. We will investigate the issue of water and sanitation,’ said Pullen.
Derek Luyt of the Public Service Accountability Monitor at Rhodes University said conditions such a Nqileni were to be expected ‘given the chaotic state of provincial government – and local government in many areas ‘ in the Eastern Cape’. ‘Not only are many local governments wracked by political infighting, but they also lack capacity to deliver. Provincial government can scarcely manage its own affairs, let alone oversee and contribute to local government,’ said Luyt.
‘ Health-e News System.