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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Biking to Prevent Malaria

Let’s play pretend.

Your grandfather just died. Everyone – the local VA, distant family members, his bowling buddies, everyone – has come out to his funeral to say goodbye. You’ve held the service, and now everyone’s gone outside, waiting for the coffin to be brought out. All of a sudden, 3 foreigners ride up on bicycles and, using a translator because they don’t even speak English, ask if you’ve got time to let them talk to the crowd about the flu.

What would you do?

Well, luckily for myself, my site mate, and a neighboring volunteer, they didn’t throw us out on our rears! Instead, the villagers welcomed us with open arms and listened attentively to what we had to say.

I can’t say I ever imagined myself crashing a funeral, but this month I’ve found myself doing a lot of things out of the ordinary. (I’ll do just about anything in the name of competition.) In order to raise awareness of malaria in Guinea, our malaria coordinator took April 25th, World Malaria Day, and turned the whole month of April into an inter-regional competition between volunteers. Malaria Month activities range from organized soccer matches, informational market booths, radio spots, net washing demonstrations, lessons in the classroom, and my personal favorite – educational bike tours.

All of these activities are geared towards teaching Guineans about malaria transmission, prevention, and treatment. Currently, malaria is the number one single cause of death in Guinea, and the entire population lives in high-transmission zones. In 2011, Peace Corps Guinea joined together with all of the other Peace Corps Africa countries to finally Stomp Out Malaria in Africa. There are over 3,000 volunteers across the continent who, like me, are working to bring malaria deaths in Guinea and Africa to zero by 2020. You can check out some of the cool projects being done by going to Stomping Out Malaria in Africa.

Getting caught up in a net
While I’ve done a handful of activities already, like I said, the bike tour was my favorite. My sitemate and I went to the health center and talked with the head doctor, asking if he’d support and help us contact other health posts in the area. With a shockingly small amount of effort, we came up with a four-day travel plan that would take us to nine different communities. Using the advice of a nearby public health volunteer, we came up with a script that hit the main ideas: 1) mosquitos transmit malaria, 2) preventing mosquito bites prevents malaria, and 3) sleeping under mosquito nets prevents mosquito bites. Other bits of information included who’s most at risk, and how to protect those people better. And to avoid being blamed for telling people to use something they don’t have and can’t afford, we also informed them of some pretty sweet news: That soon there’d be a national net distribution in Guinea, offering free nets to every family. We hit the road with a hand-drawn banner that would facilitate discussion and a net to demonstrate how exactly they should set it up.

The first day we meant to do three presentations, but things hit a snag when we took a wooden boat to the island across from my village. Somehow the message hadn’t been received, and the worker at the health center wasn’t ready for us. Luckily, Peace Corps Volunteers get to brag about their adaptability and innovation for a reason! On our way to the health center we’d been abducted by villagers holding a sacrifice. (In Guinea, a sacrifice is a giant feast held directly after a death, and again 40 days later.) They’d “forced” us to eat with them, hang out for a bit, and talk about why we were biking around. Thinking that we’d hit it off pretty well, we told the doctor to forget the event at the health center, we had a better idea. We rode back to the sacrifice, and the crowd of nearly 200 people welcomed us back with open arms. Our presentation was a huge hit! They were so excited about the upcoming net distribution that they begged us to come along a little further, to another sacrifice that was taking place that day. “They’ve heard what’s going on over here, and they really want you to go to them!”

That’s when the scenario I opened with took place. Amanda, Peter and I all noticed that the crowd was a bit more subdued than the first, but we tried not to dwell on it. After the Q and A session, one of the elders quietly interrupted and asked if we were done – they’d like to continue with the sacrifice. We were a little confused by the two drastically different reactions, but glad they’d given us the time and urged them to continue. As we mounted our bikes to head home, the reason for their lack of enthusiasm became clear – some men came from around the back of the house carrying a shroud-wrapped body. We hadn’t hit the 40-day sacrifice. Nope, we’d interrupted the actual funeral. I’m still a little embarrassed about it, but the attendees were kind, attentive, and most importantly, not hostile.

(And it counted as a bonus location on our tour! More points for our team!)

The rest of the tour went exceptionally well. On Day Two we hit four villages, biking along empty dirt roads and seeing parts of the area we’d never known existed. We ate lunch under a giant baobab tree, snacking on popcorn and bananas. Day Three, in a large town where we’d planned on having a huge event, we instead relied once again on our adaptability in the face of unexpected changes. We gave a presentation to a crowd of children, focusing primarily on net usage (and okay, using scare tactics about sick younger siblings to underline the importance of nets), and urged them to take the news of the distribution home to their families. And finally Day Four, in Peter’s tiny little village, we dressed up in our fanciest clothes and had an amazing dance party, getting down with old ladies in matching outfits and little kids too scared to dance when they saw we were watching. The whole village came out to hear our news, asking questions and participating actively in the presentation, and it ended with the elders urging the community to care for their nets properly when the distribution comes.
The best-dressed village
It was an incredible four days. I was so amazed by the responsiveness and enthusiasm shown by each of the communities, from the people who came out to hear our presentations to the health workers who helped us make it happen. I should clarify that again: the health workers made it happen. Without them, the whole tour would have been a failure. They mobilized their communities, translated for us during the presentations, clarified any confusion, and set us down the right road to the next village. We might take credit for having the idea of the bike tour, but the real success lies with the counterparts who carried it out. I can’t wait to reach out to them again for the net distribution.

He's Stomping Out Malaria. How will you?


  1. C- What a great thing to be spreading the word about. If even you may be a funeral-crasher :) Love reading about your adventures. Hope you are well.
    Much Love,

    PS. would love to see more pics!

  2. Also, was wondering, what the responses from the people were most likey? Did they have lots of questions about Malaria? or do they know the basics and are just still curious>?

    1. We didn't get too many clarification questions about malaria itself, but the news of the mosquito net distribution was a huge hit. Both the village elders and mothers were really interested in hearing about it, and how it would work. Whether the insecticide in the nets would make people sick, how long they would last, who was eligible, etc. Though our distribution date hasn't been finalized, once it is, I think it'll be one of the more satisfying projects I'll get to help out with.

      Thanks for asking! And I'll see what I can do about adding more pics. =)