Malaria: For Every Statistic, There Is a Story
He was shaking uncontrollably and the perspiration streamed down his face.
I had been in my village in Rwanda as a Peace Corps volunteer for less than two months, and I had never witnessed something like this before. But my Rwandan friend took it in stride. Rwandans look out for each other, and a couple of them helped the older gentleman on to a chair.
He wore a grey wrinkled suit with a black leather cap that tilted slightly to the side. One of my friends in the room brought him a cup of igikoma (porridge) and the man brought it to his lips, unable to prevent his shaking hands from spilling half the cup on the way.
I never saw that man again, and to this day, I’m not 100% sure he was suffering from malaria. But that experience was a wake up call for me.
How can a disease debilitate a person so completely?
I began a journey — to understand malaria in Rwanda and to find the stories layered beneath the statistics.
This month is World Malaria Month, and it is a time for Peace Corps Volunteers to do activities and events in their communities as we work alongside countries around the world to end this deadly disease.
We have a long way to go, but every person who joins the movement, brings us closer to a world without malaria. Here in Rwanda, the government is doing quite a bit to successfully fight the disease, opening up many opportunities for Peace Corps volunteers to help as well.
Like you, when I arrived in Rwanda, I had many questions about malaria. What does it actually look like? What’s the root cause? Is it as serious as it sounds?
One friend of mine helped me on this journey of truly understanding what malaria is and how we can end it.
Meet Pierre*: born in my village, expert in economics, philosopher, and occasional asker of deep theological questions via Whats App.
For Pierre and millions of students like him, malaria was the shadow lurking in the doorway, blocking passage from home to primary school.
Pierre is smart. In fact, I think he may be one of the smartest guys I have ever met. It was not surprising to me that when I brought up questions about malaria, he immediately touched upon education.
“I was at the point of getting dismissed from school,” he explained, concluding with emphasis, “That is malaria.”
Pierre was barely able to stay in school because he was so sick.
Malaria keeps more children out of the classroom than any other disease.
It has become so commonly contracted in the village, it is casually mentioned like someone is talking about the common cold.
But the common cold does not kill 1200 children every day, an estimated 70–80% of those being under the age of 5. [Source]
In my day-to-day conversations with Pierre, if malaria comes up, death comes up also. I asked him once if he was afraid of dying from malaria when he was a child. Looking back, the question is a bit rhetorical for this context.
“Malaria causes death,” he replied bluntly.
He’s not wrong.
After finishing secondary school, he left the village he had called home for so many years, and accepted a scholarship to study in China. Later, he returned to live in Kigali and start a new career working in economics. He will not be one of the tragic statistics of child deaths caused by malaria.
But Pierre’s little nephews are not yet resting in that certainty.
The mystery remains if Bebe’s name is actually Bebe. He and his big brother pay me regular visits at my house, mainly to say pleadingly “gucuranga guitar??” (to play guitar??). Or my favorite: They start by saying my name in this tone of voice that suggests I owe them something or did something wrong. “Lion… uzansura ryari?” (When will you visit me?” ) Below, Bebe meets my family for the first time.
Bebe’s family are my neighbors and some of my favorite people in the village. It’s hard to grasp that Pierre’s little nephews face a deadly disease every night.
This is where all the statistics in the world fail to express the problem adequately. Joseph Stalin, of all people, put it best:
“One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.”
Statistics are crucial and important to gauging the extent of this problem, but I confess, before Peace Corps, malaria was only a statistic.
Relationships and face to face conversations in my village changed how I saw malaria, how I saw the bar graphs and charts that summarize the data for malaria deaths and how it affects the education of young children.
Our brains cannot even fathom deaths on the scales that we see in these reports.
It is important to step away from statistics once and a while and find one story, to connect with one family, and focus our attention there.
I will never be able to comprehensively process the scale of such a disease. But I will continue to fight malaria for the people I know and love, for Pierre, for Bebe.
Stop thinking about the numbers for a second. Picture your kids, or your neighbor's kids, the ones who seem completely oblivious to any problems in the world.
They sit in a sandbox or laugh uncontrollably when you cross your eyes or make a funny face. Now picture them running along the edge of a slippery, moss covered cliff. A fall would be fatal. You are now thinking about young children across the world who are at risk of contracting malaria.
And that is what its like for a young child or a pregnant mother in some areas of Rwanda to sleep without a mosquito net. It is even more dangerous for vulnerable populations who have weak immune systems.
There are many factors (learn more here) that can put someone at risk.
But what’s the solution? There has to be one in our modern age, right?
The good news is the Rwandan government continues to step up and combat this issue. Through the President’s Malaria Initiative change is happening, and the country is moving forward. Mosquito net distribution campaigns have brought nets to remote villages, while crucial behavioral change campaigns have been implemented. Indoor residual spraying campaigns have helped protect families in high-risk areas, and Rwanda established its first entomological laboratory to study the mosquitos and the diseases they cause.
So what you can you do to help?
The first step is to get involved. Join the initiative to STOMP Malaria out of Rwanda and out of this world.
I’m no expert in treating malaria, and could not even claim to be an expert on the issue in general. I have so much to learn.
All I can offer is perspective.
Living in a community where roughly 80%* of the village contracted Malaria last year, my awareness and understanding of the issue is rapidly increasing.
We need to educate ourselves, before we start assuming why this problem continues around the world. Half the world battles with malaria on a daily basis. It is a war and there are ways to win. The World Health Organization is implementing a groundbreaking, new vaccine, and there are action steps to help end this disease. There are three steps that specifically stand out from what I have seen and learned.
- Continue getting mosquito nets hung in homes. Mosquito nets are a crucial step in defeating malaria. The more people who use mosquito nets correctly, the closer we are to minimizing the damage of this disease. This requires actually getting nets to villages and homes, as well as follow ups to ensure the nets are actually used.
2. Get people to treatment. Fast. The quicker people travel to a health center or hospital after contracting the disease, the fewer deaths we will see continuing to pile up in the future. Malaria acts quickly — that is one of its greatest dangers. The longer someone waits, the closer they walk to the precipice that separates those who contract malaria and survive from those who don’t.
3. This one is for anyone. Educate yourself. Learn the stories of individuals affected by malaria. Get involved. There are powerful and tangible ways to take action and help end malaria once and for all.
Malaria exists. It affects real families and real children across the world. It is deadly. But we are not going to simply close our minds to it.
Don’t focus solely on the statistics. Think about the people. Think about the individual families, think about Bebe.
Fight for those you love, for Pierre’s family, for the pregnant mother excited to bring her child into the world, for the students who have a hunger for education.
Together, we can end malaria. Between the resources and stories in this article, and Google search, you have all the tools you need to join the fight.
DISCLAIMER: The content of this website is mine alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Rwandan Government.
*pseudonym to give my friend and his family some anonymity though he was happy to share some of his story
*gathered from the village convent. The nuns work closely with the adjacent health center to fight malaria, but their statistics are not objective or 100% guaranteed to be accurate. Regardless, the number is over 50%.