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The app that saved 1000 children


A multimedia story by Chika Oduah


In 2010, health workers discovered an outbreak of lead in northern Nigeria, induced by improper gold mining. Thousands of people were exposed to the life threatening toxin. The government failed to release funds allocated to clean up Bagega, the largest and most contaminated community.

More than 400 children died.

In Nigeria's capital of Abuja, a young activist created a web-based app. The app became a watchdog to make sure that government money would be used to help Bagega and not to go into politicians' pockets. This is the story of how that campaign helped save a blind boy named Lukman and more than 1,000 children from death.

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Lukman is 5 years old. He lives in Bagega. The sun drenches the village in heat. In the family compound, he plays with his 9 siblings, tugging at their clothes, tussling in the dirt. He grabs their arms to guide his footsteps. Lukman cannot see his brothers and sisters. He became blind when he was a 1 year old boy.

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Lukman plays with his baby sister. Lukman had another sister, named Rushi. She had high levels of lead in blood. Eventually she died. After she died, Lukman fell ill from the lead poisoning, suffering from severe seizures. 

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"There, people were exposed to mind-boggling rates of lead contamination. Some residential soil with up to 35,000 parts per million of lead... The United States considers 400 parts per million safe for residential soil." The Associated Press

Some children had up to 700 micrograms per deciliter of lead  in their blood (μg/dL). The international standard maximum is 10 (μg/dL).

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Like thousands of men in northern Nigeria, Lukman's father toiled in the mines. The price of gold had increased during the 2008 global recession and miners in Nigeria were making more money than they ever had before. 

When the father came home from a hard day's work at the mines, his clothes were stained with dust full of lead. And he brought the ores home to process, washing them in mercury. Lukman played with the ores that his father brought home from the mines. That's how he came into direct contact with the lead. The lead damaged Lukman's nervous system, affecting his eyes.  

Lukman's father died in a motorbike accident in 2013.

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Karima is 3 years old. The lead crept into her blood. She experiences severe convulsions. Her mother said her seizures can last up to one hour.

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Siama is 11 months old. Tests revealed she had high levels of lead in her blood.

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4 year old Sanu cries at night. That's when he grips his body, writhing with stomach pains. The lead contamination gives him headaches.

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"Children are closer to the ground than adults, and often crawl, getting dust on their hands, which then ends up being ingested as they eat with those dusty hands, or simply put their hands in their mouths. Young children absorb higher percentages of ingested lead: around 40-50% compared to 10% in adults." 
                                                    Doctors Without Borders 

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"We didn’t know that the soil was contaminated. The gold miners used to bring the soil to the house to wash. We would take from the soil and even use it in the house." Lukman's mother 

“There hasn’t been any help until now. People come to talk to us, but they won’t do anything.” Halima, a grandmother living in Bagega. Eight of her grandchildren died.

“We are losing so many children in Bagega, and the government is not helping us.” Sanni M. Aliu Bagega, an environmental health officer living in Bagega

“Seven children have died so far in this compound, if you include mine, that would make it 10.” Amina Murtala, 20-year-old mother

Photo: Lukman's mother stands in the entrance of her compound. 

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Lukman's community, Bagega, was in crisis. Hundreds of children were dying. International health workers desperately wanted to come in to provide chelation therapy for lead poison, but before they could administer the treatment, the community needed to be completely cleaned of lead contamination.

In May 2012, the federal government announced an allocation of $5.4 million USD to Bagega for environmental cleanup. 

More kids died. And Lukman -- blinded -- was still shaking with violent seizures. 

June, July, August, September passed and the money never came. 

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300 miles away from the crisis in Bagega is a tech-savvy 24-year-old named Hamzat in the capital city of Abuja.

He left a lucrative job at an influential non-governmental organization to become a full-time activist.

Browsing through local newspapers, he learned about the lead poisoning crisis and the government funds that were being held up.

That's when he decided to start a social media campaign with his friends, called #SaveBagega And he launched the web-based app: "Follow The Money" 

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" I felt I can add my voice to the voiceless children and hold the government to account by engaging citizens using social media."   Hamzat   

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48 hours after Hamzat first tweeted #SaveBagega the hashtag was re-tweeted and reached by more than one million people

Local and international media outlets picked up the story and the campaign further swelled.

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After mounting media scrutiny coupled with Follow The Money's popular #SaveBagega campaign, the federal government of Nigeria finally disburses the money, 8 months after its initial promise. $5.2 million USD is distributed to 3 ministries to address specific needs:

* The Ministry of Environment to clean up the lead

* The Ministry of Mines and Steel Development to introduce safer practices to miners

* The Ministry of Health to treat people suffering from high levels of lead

Photo: environmental workers prepare to remove the lead contamination in Bagega

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March 2010-  The CDC, World Health Organization and local officials confirm a lead outbreak in northern Nigeria.  At least 10,000 people are affected.

August 2010 - A team of health and environmental experts, representing various Nigerian government agencies, conduct a house-to-house survey in Bagega to investigate the lead outbreak 

February 2012 - Human Rights Watch releases a report called “Nigeria: Child Lead Poisoning Crisis

May 2012 - President promises N850 million ($5.4 million USD) to help the village of Bagega respond to the lead poisoning crisis

U.S.-based environmental engineering firm TerraGraphics International Foundation in conjuction with state officials  submit a proposed budget of about $2.7 million USD to the Federal Ministry of Environment in Nigeria to remediate Bagega

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May 2012 - Doctors Without Borders and the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control organize a meeting in Abuja to push for the release of $5.4 million

August 2012-  Hamzat embarks on the first of what will be many visits to Bagega, 33km from the closest major town of Anka

September 2012 - Doctors Without Borders endorses Hamzat's initiative, Follow The Money

October 2012 - Lead cleanup is scheduled to begin in Bagega, but does not because the federal government has not yet released funding

November 2012 — Follow The Money integrates the #SaveBagega project on its website, publishing data visualizations 

December 2012 - Follow The Money urges people to post comments on President Goodluck Jonathan’s official Facebook page demanding for the funds to be released

Follow The Money releases a report called “When Will The Funds Reach Zamfara?”

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January 2013 - The Follow The Money campaign gets attention from Nigerian politicians. After a visit to Bagega, an influential senator tweeted “I have it on good authority that Mr. President has approved the immediate release of funds to Bagega.”

Follow The Money’s #SaveBagega hashtag generates 921,453 impressions

January 28, 2013 - The Nigerian federal government announces $5.2 million USD has been released 

February 2013 - The Federal Ministry of the Environment announces the start of lead cleanup activities in Bagega

April 2013 - Doctors Without Borders starts treating children in Bagega, enrolling more than 1,000 children in its lead treatment program

July 2013 - After 5 and a half months of work, environmental workers finally complete the lead contamination cleanup in Bagega. The cleanup was executed by the Ministry of Environment with Terragraphics International Foundation as a consultant. Nearly 450 compounds and 4 hectares of land were cleaned

September 2013 - Artisanal miners participate in a workshop conducted by the Ministry of Mines and Steel Development on incorporating safer mining practices.

April 2014 - Follow The Money submits a letter to the Federal Ministry of Health to inquire if the ministry had received its money; Follow the Money takes to social media after discovering that the Ministry of Finance had not yet released funds to the Ministry of Health

June 2014 -  The Ministry of Health finally receives its funds

July 2014 - Follow the Money releases a report called “When you make government spending work, nothing works like it!”

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January 2015 - Lukman is still playing with his brothers and sisters in the dirt in Bagega, but now, the dirt is free of lead.

Lukman's mother: "I want Lukman to become a businessman." 

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"I wanted to tell this story because it speaks of success. We focus on Africa’s problems and often neglect to look at Africa’s success stories. Hamzat and his team’s Follow The Money #SaveBagega campaign changed lives. The campaign continues. This story is dedicated to the gold miners and their families in northern Nigeria. We hope for the day when their livelihoods will be deemed worthy enough to protect."    
Chika Oduah

Text by Chika Oduah
Field production and reporting by Chika Oduah
Video and photography by Chika Oduah & Tife Owolabi
Audiovisual editing by Chika Oduah
Map by Mirko Lorenz Map Credits: Open Street Map/Stamen Toner 

Music Infados, Digya and Tafi Maradi no voice by Kevin MacLeod. Licensed under Creative Commons

Many thanks to Hamzat and his team for their help with this story

Chika Oduah is an independent journalist based in Abuja, Nigeria. Chika Oduah reported this story as a 2014 grant recipient of the African Story Challenge. The African Story Challenge is a project by the African Media Initiative, the continent’s largest association of media owners and operators with support from the International Center for Journalists.

January 2015

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