Malaria is a disease I heard about in my studies of Africa. “Oh yeah” I’d think, “what a terrible disease. We should do more about that.” However, when it came down to it malaria seemed little more then a nuisance. It wasn’t until my Pece Corps medical clearance process that it hit me: malaria is a tremendous problem which touches millions of lives across Africa, and the world.
I was sitting in a small room in a public health clinic in Portland, Maine where I was getting vaccines – yellow fever, polio, pertussis, tetanus, you name it – from the wonderful staff employed by the Department of Health. Knowing I was headed to the Peace Corps the staff dispensed with most of the travel warnings and advisories – except those related to malaria.
Both arms smarting from five shots, I looked at what lay before me: a map of Senegal, nearly all of the country colored red. “These are the areas where malaria is endemic in Senegal – it’s pretty bad.” I mostly just stared back at the doctor, not understanding what she meant as she continued. “You will need to sleep under a mosquito net every night and take prophylaxis each day to ensure you don’t get malaria. I know Peace Corps will provide you prophylaxis, but here are your options.” As she produced several sheets of paper about the different chemical prophylaxis options available today, a thought dawned on me: “There is no way everyone in Senegal is able to take these medications. Most people wouldn’t be able to afford them, and it would be prohibitively expensive for the government to provide them. So how do they protect themselves?”
Fast forward to my time in Senegal, and I have an answer. Most folks sleep under a mosquito net, the government provides prophylaxis for pregnant women, malaria testing and treatment is free and available country wide, and every three years the government provides everyone in Senegal a new mosquito net. These steps have drastically reduced malaria cases in Senegal, and some regions are almost malaria free. But there is work to be done.
Not everyone in Senegal sleeps under a net, and their nets often have holes in them. When dirty nets are laundered, the pesticide coating on them is washed away with the dirt. Water collects in discarded containers and trash, providing breeding grounds for the Anopheles mosquito which carries malaria.
This is where Peace Corps Volunteers enter the picture. In Africa, every volunteer is a malaria volunteer regardless of their project sector. Over the years Peace Corps Africa has developed a program to empower volunteers to work in malaria prevention – Stomp Out Malaria. Each May, Stomp Out Malaria holds ‘Malaria Month’, encouraging all Africa volunteers to engage in malaria prevention work and providing them ideas and resources.
As I perused the list of suggested activities one caught my eye – a market booth. The idea is simple: get a table, put your mosquito net over it, and run a game to educate folks about malaria. Such a thing is right up my alley: an impromptu road side educational game.
I set up a table and chairs covered by a mosquito net by the well, where I knew I would be able to entice players. Players would randomly select three multiple choice questions, allowing me to determine how much they know about malaria (quite a lot!) and discuss the answers they didn’t know. For their effort they all received a few pieces of candy.
I was impressed by the knowledge in my village. The women especially knew a lot about preventing, treating, and eradicating malaria. Sometimes they would sit down at the booth and simply recite everything they knew about it, a smile on their face, before heading back to their work. I also had a lot of younger folks and kids participate. They truly treated it like a game with a few even insisting I continually quiz them until they knew all the answers!
I followed the market booth two days later with a meeting geared towards women to discuss malaria, the importance of prevention, and basic care of mosquito nets. We began with an activity called “Malaria and the Farmer” which gave the group a visual of what happens when women cannot work around the house because they have malaria. We then learned how to properly wash mosquito nets and why it is important to sew up holes in them. After the training one woman confided in me that she doesn’t sleep under a mosquito net, though now she plans to purchase one now!
I hope these lessons help keep my community safe as the rainy season approaches and the mosquito population blossoms, along with all the greenery in Senegal.