Like most young couples, Idrissa and Adama were just getting a handle on life. They lived in a small room in Idrissa's family's compound in Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou. It wasn't much, but it was home.
Herds of cousins screamed through the house and cooing aunts were always ready to cuddle Rahim, Adama's 3-year-old, who has his father's eyes and his mother's gentle demeanor.
Adama enjoyed working at her husband's dry-goods shop. She was good at multitasking: balancing Rahim on her hip while filling bags with sugar and soap for customers. She used the chance to chat with neighbors and get caught up on the local gossip. In the evening, she strolled the lane in front of the shop, catching the cool breeze that drifted off the nearby body of water.
Business wasn't booming, but Idrissa and Adama were getting by. They had plans to expand someday. At night they whispered to each other about Rahim's future. They wanted him to go to school, maybe become a doctor.
They had no idea as they got into bed that last day of August that this life they were building, this hope they had for Rahim, would be interrupted the next morning by an unwanted visitor.
A Rude Awakening
Adama woke up at 3 a.m. the next day to prepare the Ramadan meal. A light was falling. She thought nothing of it. After the meal of pounded corn patties with sauce and tea, everyone went back to bed to get a little more sleep before the day started.
At 4 a.m., Adama was rudely awakened.
"My mother-in-law started banging on my door, telling me to wake up," she says. As she slid out of bed to put her flip-flops on, her feet plunged into 6 inches of cold, reddish water. Their room was flooded, and outside, driving curtains of rain were eating away at their mud house.
"I got up and started sweeping the rain out," she says. "Everyone was doing the same thing."
But they couldn't compete with Mother Nature, who was giving them all she had.
Adama quickly realized sweeping was futile. She had to get out of there. But Idrissa had already rushed to his shop to see the damage. She was caught between the waters breaching the dikes on one side of her house and a rising river that had formed in the street on the other. Adama is lean, barely more than 100 pounds. She knew she would be swept away.
Ahsami, Adama's brother-in-law, took Rahim, held him above his head and slogged through the rushing water to safety. Then a neighbor whom Adama didn't know hoisted her onto his shoulders. The water, she says, was almost up to his neck. Holding on to his head, Adama clung to her ride as he shouldered his way through muddy water. He couldn't see his feet and had to inch his way forward like a blind man. It took them 20 minutes to walk 100 yards to the Nimnin Primary School.
'Back at Zero'
It's been five days since the flood. Adama and Idrissa lost everything—their house, Idrissa's store, all of his goods and all of their money. Adama managed to salvage some clothes and dishes. The rest is buried deep under the mud where their house once stood. Every day, Adama goes back and digs. "This is where my bed was," she says, pointing to a soft patch of mud the color and texture of cookie dough. Today she found the remnants of her armoire. It will be used as firewood. She also found a pot caked with mud that they used to burn incense in.
"We lost everything, life is back at zero," she says, picking mud out of the pot. "I want to rebuild, but not here. I'm afraid. I never thought this could happen here."
For now she and Idrissa and Rahim live at the Nimnin Primary School. There are more than 1,400 people living in 18 classrooms. The school is arranged into neighborhoods. She stays with the people who used to live on her street.
The second-grade classroom here has turned into a communal bedroom. It's piled up to the windows with bundles of sour clothes and salvaged bits of lives. During the night, close to 30 women and children crowd in here. They toss and turn on the concrete floor, slap at mosquitoes and wrap themselves tighter, trying to escape the chill that seeps into everyone. The snoring, the hacking coughs, the dew that settles on her, Adama can't stand any of it.
"It's too dirty," she says of the room. Adama has a low tolerance for dirt, and now she has to sleep in it. While the government distributed sleeping mats, not everyone got one. So she spreads her wraparound skirt on the floor for her and Rahim to sleep on. Or if she's lucky, she can bum an edge of a mat from someone. Regardless of where she tries to sleep, she can't.
Protecting What's Left
"I can't sleep at night," she says, adding that nobody has mosquito nets. "I don't want my son to sleep there. If the mosquitoes bite him, I don't have the money to pay for malaria medicine."
Idrissa, like most men, sleeps outside. Others sleep next to their collapsed houses to ward off looters who come looking for items of value.
In her stylish white capri pants and beaded necklace, Adama likes to look nice, even if she's homeless. But that's difficult here because there are no showers. Some people bathe in the latrines. Adama refuses to do that. Under the cover of night, she's started sneaking out to a back field and crouching behind buildings away from the prying eyes of others. Then she quickly takes a sponge bath.
Adama says the three spigots at the school provide plenty of water, but poor drainage around the spigots is turning the areas into mud pits. Huge greenish puddles of standing water have collected in the schoolyard. Many people go to the bathroom in the soccer field behind the school or in the weeds behind the classrooms.
Preventing a Disease Outbreak
Catholic Relief Services' technical advisor for water and sanitation, Jean Philippe Debus, has seen situations like this before. He knows what can happen. "The main objective of emergency sanitation is to prevent a high level of diarrheal diseases," he says. "And when you have fecal matter everywhere and it's not properly disposed of, pathogens are everywhere. The most worrying aspect here is the possible outbreak of an epidemic."
That's why CRS is providing a full package of water and sanitation support. At several sites around the city that house around 3,500 displaced people, CRS will construct or rehabilitate latrines; set up designated areas for showers, dishwashing and laundry; build drainage areas around water points; and recruit volunteers in the camps to promote good hygiene practices.
For now, Adama will spend her days playing with Rahim. She's started doing laundry for people in the neighborhood. But she doesn't get more than $1 a load. While she washes, she thinks about the future.
"We don't know what to do," she says. "What are we going to do to get back to where we were?"
Lane Hartill is the West Africa regional information officer for Catholic Relief Services. He is based in Dakar, Senegal.