By: PCV Nicole Alexander, PC/Sierra Leone
I’ll admit it right from the start. I’m no athletic guru. I’m not a runner, not a swimmer, not a biker. I might ride my bicycle around town but haven’t ridden farther than a 9 or 10 miles. But when our post put together the first annual Malaria Bike Tour from Kamakwie to Panlap (Makeni), I immediately signed up. I’ve decided to be a YES girl and push myself to do the things I think I can’t do. Like ride close to 60 miles up one hill only to coast into another on the hottest week in the tropics of Africa. I didn’t realize the most challenging part wouldn’t be riding my bicycle.
On one of our many stops through villages, we spent an afternoon finishing up a mural in Gbendembu that my best friend Bryan Gastonguay started at his school. Students were taking their final exams but a few milled around to watch us paint. I got to talking with a teenage boy named Ibrahim and asked him if he knew why we were painting this mural. “Malaria?” Yes, actually. We are here to help talk about Malaria and how sleeping under a tent can help keep you, your family and your compound safe. “I know all of that.” Oh, you do? Excellent! So tell me, what gives you Malaria? “The female mosquito.” Right! Okay, so is a mosquito born with Malaria? “Yes.” Ah ha! This led to our discussion about how he may know some things about this disease but not all, as do most people. A little later in the day, we held a presentation in the school’s open pavilion, and when we began to ask the hard questions no one wanted to participate. They didn’t want to admit they didn’t know the answers. Then one boy in the back quietly raised his hand. Yes? Tell us. How is Malaria given to the mosquito? Several students shoved Ibrahim and his raised hand to the front. As Ibrahim correctly answered the question, I felt proud to know that if nothing else one student benefited from this bicycle tour and maybe he didn’t just know the correct thing to say. Maybe it stuck. But did it change his behavior?
As I pedaled up a particularly grueling hill, I couldn’t take it any longer. I had to stop to catch my breath. I pushed my bicycle under a shady, mango tree heavy with new fruit and greedily drank my water. A mango! That’s exactly what will give me a little energy to get going again. I peered around the tree to an auntie cutting cassava leaves for the afternoon meal and asked her if I could have a mango from her tree. She wobbled over, picked one for me and said, “Come.” She grabbed me by the hand and before I knew it she had dragged me into her house and into her room to show me all of her stuff. “Look! See! I have a room!” I couldn’t help but giggle and look around at her messy, cramped room. A pile of worn shoes, a stack of baskets with clothes to the ceiling in the corner, and a lopsided, termite eaten king size bed with a big green mosquito net covered in wet clothes pulled out of the way. A mosquito net! I am so happy to see you sleep under one. We are riding our bicycles to spread awareness about Malaria. “Well, I don’t actually sleep under it. No one does. It is too hot. This is Africa.” It was then I realized that information does not always translate to a change in behavior. This woman knew about Malaria, could tell me the risks, could name ways to prevent it, even had a mosquito net hung in her house. Yet she still didn’t buy into it. She still didn’t sleep under the net, still didn’t feel like her actions made a difference in prevention.
Sixty miles of hard hills, dirt and sweat encasing me like a painted on suit and a very sore back from sleeping in a tent didn’t break my spirit. We spread information, we talked to people, and we got the message out there that Malaria is real and you can do something about it. Not everyone will change their attitude or behaviors this week, this month. The more people that know, the more people that we talk to will turn the message from just words into wisdom, and maybe one day lead to eradication. Athletic guru or not, I did it. And it was amazing to help people help themselves and learn that they too can stomp out Malaria.