How do you protect your family in the ‘worst country in the world’?
Ericaine’s story is about a mother’s love, a wife’s resilience and a woman’s determination to make life better – not just for her family, but for everyone in the displacement camp they call home, writes Toilet Twinning CEO Lorraine Kingsley.
I met Ericaine in the middle of a displacement camp in Central African Republic. It’s considered one of the worst countries in the world to live – and Ericaine is one of CAR’s most vulnerable people.
It was stifling inside the large, wooden-framed tent that housed Ericaine’s family – and seven other families besides. Her tarpaulin-walled compartment housed a bed of sticks held together with string, with a flimsy rattan mat on top. It didn’t look comfortable enough to sleep on for one night – let alone three years and counting.
Above the bed, clothes hung from lines of string hung between nails in the wooden struts: a woman’s skirt, a top and a shirt, and a few items of children’s clothing so dishevelled they looked more like cleaning rags.
Next to the bed sat a tiny cabin-sized suitcase, and a few pots and pans. On the bed lay a small pile of dog-eared textbooks and exercise books.
Before Ericaine came to this camp, she told me, she had a market stall selling groundnuts, cassava and palm oil. She had her own home, enough money to feed her children and money for clothes. Her husband works away on a diamond quarry.
Ericaine, now 39, was at home when she heard gunfire. She went outside, to find people running in all directions, terrified, desperately looking for their children and relatives.
Ericaine called to her four children, and started running. She carried her two-year-old daughter on her back: her teenage daughter Sandra carried her younger brother and Ericaine’s other son ran alongside them.
A man was gunned down in the street ahead of them. A woman told them she’d seen armed militia nearby and she pointed to where it was safe for them to go.
Ericaine and her children ran to the bush and sheltered for two nights. She stayed awake, guarding her children. On the third day, she felt brave enough to make her way to a nearby church, where she took refuge with about 100 other families. A large tarpaulin shelter was set up for them in the church compound – and that was their home for the next eight months until a UN camp was established next-door.
Ericaine was four weeks’ pregnant when she arrived at the church. Over the next eight months, they often heard gunfire and often hid in the bush for days at a time.
It was while they were cowering in the bush one day that Ericaine went into labour. She sent Sandra on ahead, with her siblings. She had her baby there in the bush, before help came.
A couple of women carried Ericaine back to the church, where staff looked after her, gave her sheets and clothes and medicine.
Soon after Ericaine’s baby girl, Pricille, was born, the UN camp was set up. Conditions had been terrible in the church compound: they were just as bad in the camp.
Sickness and diarrhoea were rife. Ericaine’s daughter Benicia, who was two at the time, spent a month in hospital with extreme fever and sickness – probably typhoid.
Without proper latrines, children went to the toilet anywhere and everywhere. The smell was awful: so were the rats and flies. Women would go to toilet in the bush – where they feared being attacked.
Ericaine volunteered immediately. ‘I wanted to make the camp a healthier place – not just for my family – but for the whole community,’ she says. Enter the organisation we raise funds for, Tearfund. Water and Sanitation staff capped a nearby spring to provide clean water for residents in the camp, and built them ten toilet blocks and bathing blocks, along with handwashing stations. They trained a small team of residents who were charged with looking after the toilets and making sure people used them properly.
Ericaine and the cleaning team asked for padlocks, so they could stop children making a mess of the toilets and damaging the temporary wooden-framed structures. Mothers took responsibility for holding the keys, so the toilets would stay as clean as possible.
Gradually, conditions have improved and people are healthier. Ericaine and her team are proud they’ve been able to play a part in protecting their community.
‘We saw a big reduction in sickness and diarrhoea,’ says Ericaine. ‘Here, we live on top of each other, so everyone can hear you when you’re sick. We’d often look after children if a mother was ill.
‘Things are so much better now. I can’t thank you enough for giving us back our health.’
Ericaine’s nation is still volatile: intense violence flares up without warning. But, here at least, in Ericaine’s corner of ‘the unhappiest country in the world’*, she’s able to keep her family safe, from disease at least.
Photos: Ralph Hodgson / Toilet Twinning
*UN poll, March 2017