Humanitarian and civil engineer Sulaiman Gumi of Nigeria has traveled to Louisville with his wife and 18-month-old daughter to celebrate World Water Day on Wednesday, and to raise awareness of his organization’s work with local nonprofit WaterStep, which provides technology to create clean drinking water worldwide.

Gumi — the son of Sheik Abubakar Gumi, an influential Islamic cleric and scholar — credits his father’s “respect for the sanctity of life” for his work as a humanitarian. When Nigerian militant Islamist group Boko Haram’s insurgency broke out, Gumi redirected a charity he’d started to fight sexual violence called Victims of Violence to carry out a broader mission of providing medicine, education, food and water to victims in Nigeria.

In an interview with IL earlier this week, Gumi said Boko Haram has been defeated militarily, but are just as dangerous — if not more dangerous — now. During the military conflict, Boko Haram was centralized; now it operates in clandestine pockets. 

Civilians can’t leave the refugee camps and return home because it is too dangerous. The camps are cut off and all aid needs to be brought into them. “Foreign NGOs are bringing in food, but it’s never enough,” Gumi said. The crisis is particularly volatile in the state of Borno, where his organization does much of its work.

That’s why Victims of Violence started building mobile medical units to deal with the massive amount of malnutrition occurring in the camps, especially among children. 

Sulaiman Gumi | Photo by Chris Kenning

Victims of Violence clinics began noticing that giving children nutritional supplements wasn’t enough. Without regular access to safe, clean drinking water, Gumi said, 80-90 percent of the children that came to the clinics were also suffering from water-related ailments that their compromised immune systems could not fight.

Last March, Louisville nonprofit Supplies Over Seas, which helped supply some of Victims of Violence’s medical clinics and surgery units, brought Gumi to Louisville and introduced him to WaterStep — and a partnership was formed.

Since then a variety of WaterStep’s technologies have been put into place at the camps. Safe water, Gumi said, lets his medical clinics “fight malnutrition, not disease.”

For example, WaterStep’s M100 was installed in a school, and teachers were trained how to use it. The M100 is a chlorine generator that uses a 12-volt car battery and salt to produce chlorine gas to purify water. The teachers prepare the chlorine in the morning and treat the water; all day long, children line up to cup their hands under the taps and drink. As a result, the school has seen a significant drop in absences due to illness.

The portable bleach makers are good for larger reservoirs of water where, even though the water is coming in clean from the ground, the reservoir gets contaminated by the buckets that are dumped into it or by the hands and feet of people fetching the water.

Clean water and clinics are just part of what Victims of Violence provides to the refugees. The organization also creates schools and educational materials for students who have been out of a classroom because of the crisis. Through another program, they also train children to provide advocacy to other children who are being abused. In addition, Victims of Violence builds shelters and is renewing its focus on caring for women who have been victims of sexual abuse.

According to the World Health Organization, Nigeria is in “crisis” with 3.7 million people in need. Its strategic plan for 2017 says: “Water, Sanitation and Hygiene infrastructure must be urgently rehabilitated/rebuilt to minimize waterborne diseases. After two years without a recorded case of wild polio virus, four cases were confirmed in 2016 in Borno, and indicate the urgent, escalating health needs.”

The public is invited to tour WaterStep and meet Gumi at a “Hope for More” event on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m.

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