By CHINEDU ASADU
TABAWA, Nigeria (AP) — When the water reached Aisha Ali’s hut made of woven straw mats and raffia palms, she packed up all her belongings and set out on foot with her eight youngest children.
Ali, 40, knew she and her family might never see their home again. In this remote village — in the Gashua part of Yobe State, a largely agricultural area in northeastern Nigeria — poor infrastructure means annual flooding from excess water from the local river. Most villagers pay little attention to warning signs when the water levels rise. Dealing with floods is a way of life.
But this year, heavy rains flooded Nigeria and neighboring countries had not flooded the region for at least a decade, largely due to climate change. Ali and her husband knew this time was different. The water reached their home and began to rise in the cabin.
Ali and the children walked along a narrow, swampy road. Her brother’s cart, pulled by cows, followed them. He agreed to take some of the children with him. Not everything would fit.
Ali made a quick calculation. She thought the car might get some of them to safety more quickly. She told five of her children to get on board. She and the others would follow on foot.
Nine-year-old twins Hassana and Husseina got in, wearing their headscarves and traditional green dresses to their toes. Younger sisters Hauwa, 8, and Amina, 5, followed. So is the 7-year-old brother Gambo.
They chattered with excitement – a cart ride was a rare outing, and they were too young to understand the dangers of the water around them. Hassana smiled, happy to have Husseina beside her. The twins were inseparable and even shared a sleeping pad every night. Hassana was more reserved and Husseina always stood up for her.
Ali assured her family that they would all be reunited soon. They said goodbye and Ali continued on the road with three of her children aged 15, 6 and 3. The car passed them and eventually disappeared from sight.
The flooding which began in June has become the deadliest in more than a decade, according to the authorities of this West African country. More than 600 have been murdered. Thousands of homes have been destroyed, along with farmland. More than 1.3 million people are displaced. Lives and livelihoods are bent.
The environmental crisis has unfolded alongside a humanitarian crisis: a decade-long conflict rooted in an extremist-led insurgency against the government. Violent attacks are common, especially in the north, where Islamic State-backed extremists now team up with armed groups of former pastoralists fighting communities for access to water and land. Flooding has made the delivery of aid and supplies increasingly difficult.
Officials blamed the floods on the release of excess water from Cameroon’s Lagdo Dam and above-normal rainfall. Regardless of the cause, the effect in villages such as Tabawa is widespread.
Families here were already struggling. Ali, her husband and children hardly received any food aid from the local government. Electricity, drinking water and passable roads were luxury.
Authorities report distributing relief supplies to affected families and trying to evacuate some to displaced persons camps. But no such camps or efforts exist in Tabawa, which has a population of 1,000, or the surrounding towns. Those fleeing must do so on their own, to displacement camps dozens of kilometers away.
For Ali, it meant taking her family away from the only home they’ve ever known.
“While the flood was trying to destroy things, we were trying to save ourselves,” she said.
Buba Mobe, 25, navigated his cart cautiously. The water was waist height when the children left Tabawa and was getting higher and higher. Stretches of low-lying road deepened water in some pockets. More than 4 kilometers after Mobe passed them, the cows came to their deepest point yet.
The cart tumbled and overturned, sending the children onto the road and into the floodwaters.
They struggled to keep their heads above water. Mobe tried to save those closest to him by lifting Husseina first and dropping her into a shallower area. He hurried back to fetch the others, but they had disappeared under the water. He searched frantically but couldn’t see any movement in the water to track them.
Mobe feared the worst: four of the five children his sister had entrusted to him had disappeared. Still, he hurried to find other villagers to aid in his quest. By the time he returned with help, it was too late.
“When we found their bodies, they were already swollen,” Buba said.
Finally, Ali and her other children arrived on the scene. Husseina ran away and clung to her mother. Ali was in shock and everyone burst into tears.
“I went to the dead bodies and touched their heads,” Ali recalls. “I rubbed their heads and thanked God for His mercy.”
She never imagined that the children in the cart would be in more danger than those walking on the road. But she took it as God’s will. “I couldn’t do anything,” she said.
The villagers carried the bodies of Hassana, Hauwa, Amina and Gambo back to Tabawa.
The funeral was solemn and speedy. Dozens of villagers gathered on the farmland where the children’s bodies were buried in small graves. Days of praying in the mosque followed.
In the weeks following her children’s deaths, Ali was unable to visit their graves, per the rules of the village’s 40-day mourning period.
“I try to remember them, especially at night, but there’s not much left of them,” she said, as their clothes and most of their belongings had also been taken by floods.
The family’s hut has been destroyed, so they no longer live in Tabawa, where the children are buried. Their new home is in Darayami village, 11 kilometers away. Like many families scattered across new lands in search of better living conditions, Ali and her relatives have no connection to this place – it’s just where they could find space to start over. They hope to return to Tabawa someday, but for now their focus is on survival.
Ali’s husband suffers from hypertension; he cannot stand for a long time and his body is shaking. He can’t work and Ali thinks his health has deteriorated since the death of his children.
The lives of their six surviving children are also forever changed. Husseina and her twin brother were once the life of their home. Without Hassana, she spends her days in a gloomy mood, with no desire to play. Nights can be harder as she tries to sleep alone.
Husseina usually only has her brothers at home: 6-year-old Muhammad and 3-year-old Umaru. The family’s three eldest children still live at home, but spend much of their days working in the fields and farmlands, for a daily wage of $2 or less.
The eldest sister, a 17-year-old who once taught her younger siblings their Islamic lessons, is divorced and back home after a short-lived marriage to a man she barely knew. Still, Ali hopes her 15-year-old daughter will get married soon – there are too many mouths to feed, and getting married early is an accepted part of their religion and culture.
The family’s new cabin is barely furnished. The children play barefoot on thick brown earth. The elderly pick the leftovers from the farms where they work so that the family can make ends meet.
“No food, no shelter, no place even to get a good night’s sleep,” Ali said.
But she clings to her faith. She holds Husseina tightly against her belly. “It’s all God’s plan,” Ali tells her as they begin to cry again.