Today I made a vow to, at some point during my two-year service, develop a program to help fight malaria. Malaria is a huge problem in our community. Oyam is essentially a big swamp and malaria-carrying mosquitoes are in plenty. A few months ago I was actually told that this area has the highest rate of malaria in the world but I can’t vouch for the accuracy of that statement. People fall sick regularly, disrupting the flow of work and life. Teachers miss classes, land goes uncultivated, and work unfinished as people suffer from dangerous malaria-inflicted fever and diarrhea and families struggle to care for their loved ones.
An unbelievable amount of money and resources are dedicated to fighting malaria in Uganda. The health center just finished yet another round of spraying homes with insecticides and countless NGOs have come to lead sensitizations on the subject and distribute nets (which I only ever see being used for fishing and as nets in makeshift soccer goals). Despite the upper tier’s tireless fight against malaria, it seems to me that people on the community level are far less engaged in the battle.
So why my sudden interest in malaria? No, it wasn’t the schoolboy who told me that it killed his 4 younger siblings. It’s not the massive line of patients waiting to report the same symptoms to the health center staff. No one I know has recently died and I’m not crippled with fever as I write this. Once again- it all comes down to a chicken.
Four months after moving into my house (which happened four months after arriving in Ngai) I STILL don’t have a place to bathe. My little house, which I love dearly, is made up of a sitting room, bedroom, and miniature kitchen (I had to saw the sides off of my cooking table to get it in). Apparently, while it is both stupid and annoying, it is not uncommon for government housing to be commissioned without a pit latrine or bathing area- facilities which I had previously considered to be essential. Luckily, Junior said that she didn’t mind if I continued to bathe at her house until arrangements had been made to construct a shelter at mine.
About a week ago Junior left to run some errands in Lira. She said that she’d spend one night at her parents’ house in town and come back to Ngai on Sunday when she would prepare a chicken dinner for all of us. I called on Monday to find out if everything was ok. She said that she was in Kitgum, a small city near the boarder of Sudan. Baraka’s father, who works there, was suffering from a horrible case of malaria and was in the hospital. She was worried and would stay with him until she felt confident that he’d be okay. This was bad. No, I wasn’t concerned about Baraka’s father- I’m not a big fan. This meant that dinner was being postponed indefinitely- that Junior’s chicken was here to stay.
A few months ago Junior was accused of bringing bird flu to the health center via a rather smart looking rooster. Supposedly all of the chickens died or were killed and everyone was pretty pissed. While I’m pretty sure that we didn’t experience an outbreak of bird flu nor do I remember this mass killing of chickens the accusations were enough to make Junior keep any subsequent poultry separate from everyone else’s- more specifically, in the bathroom.
It’s difficult to explain how startling coming across an unexpected chicken can be in and of itself but when you add being wet and naked into the mix it’s all out terrifying. She lurks there in the corner, waiting until my most vulnerable moment when she suddenly ruffle her feathers, scratch the floor, and make scary chicken noises- her beady little bird eyes warning of an imminent attack that has yet to come. I scream and the girls laugh outside of the bathroom door. It’s like clockwork but somehow I never remember that this exchange has become part of my bathing routine.
Over the past few days she’s gone on the offensive leaving booby-trap all over the tile floor- meticulously placed poops every 4 inches or so. This morning I failed to see one and went sliding across the room, only narrowly missing the squat toilet. It was after this near death experience that I had an epiphany. This was a call to arms. The root of the problem wasn’t the chicken itself but malaria. Had Junior’s husband not gotten malaria we would have eaten the chicken days ago and I would never have been subjected to the psychological torture of bathing with a bird or risked life and limb while tiptoeing through a minefield of shit. Yes, this was the world telling me that I was needed in the boring, stagnant, endless, fight against malaria.
While I might not be oozing with enthusiasm I do feel that it’s a very worthwhile cause to take on (and have given myself a two year window in which to design the said program). As I mentioned earlier malaria is having a huge impact on the lives and productivity of the people of Ngai. It’s something that’s affecting everything and will continue to be a major deterrent in the progress of this community and country if we can’t figure out how to get it under control and convince people that prevention is a better way forward than constantly seeking treatment. It’s certainly an uphill battle but I know that anytime I feel myself loosing motivation I can go for a refreshing bucket bath and will be ready to fight again when I come out!