Many people across sub-Saharan Africa will tell you they had malaria many times, as if it were nothing more than a harmless flu. Many will tell you their neighborhood is infested with mosquitoes, but would not initiate any efforts to protect their families. Many have survived. But my daughter Ami, like the thousands of others who lose their lives to malaria each and every year, paid the ultimate price.
Ami succumbed to the disease after three days of fever and convulsions. Clutching a bag of apples—her favorite fruit—that she had asked me to bring back from Dakar when we last spoke, I listened, silently, to the circumstances of her death. I was working in Dakar at the time because the capital city offered better employment opportunities. I would come back to our village on weekends to see my family. However, that Friday of September ’99 was different: I was coming back to bury my little girl.
In 1999, the people of Thiénaba, my rural community in Senegal, knew little about malaria even though the disease was causing 40 percent of the deaths in our village, ravaging our children and pregnant women. Ami and I were very close, and I decided to channel the pain of her passing into my life’s mission. I sold all my photography equipment, quit my job after 14 years in an international organization, and set myself to the task.
Empowering and listening to communities have proven to be effective in the response to malaria. This kind of outreach to communities has not only enabled me to understand their needs and challenges, but also prevented us from replicating, in vain, activities that simply aren’t suitable in our context.
Following a meeting organized by health technicians who trained our community on preventive measures and available treatments, I developed a series of strategies specific to Thiénaba. During the training, the technicians insisted strongly on keeping our environment clean. A public health committee run by women was therefore established to ensure all villages were cleaned twice a week. In addition, a set-setal (major clean‑up in Wolof, a local language) was organized every September, to drain stagnant water and other places where mosquitoes might breed.
Malaria compromises our children’s education. Ami was a bright and determined student who left this world 10 days before classes were to resume for the new school year. The disease is responsible for the high rate of school absenteeism, endangers the professional future of our children and traps us in a vicious cycle of poverty.
We will never eliminate malaria unless we all become change agents. The expression “it takes an entire village” perfectly summarizes our credo. In Thiénaba, members of the Club FRP (Roll Back Malaria) ensure that all school-age children sleep under nets during the rainy season. In addition, neighbors look out for one another, ensuring proper use of nets and reporting any suspected cases of the disease. This has led to a significant increase in early referral rates and helps protect over 200 families from malaria. Lastly, our solidarity fund helps families who face financial hardships but, above all, it is used to purchase additional nets for newborns, which I value as the best baby gift ever.
A Village Council of some 83 villages is responsible for monitoring and evaluating the strategies. The Council meets three times per year: before, during and after the rainy season.
Through Global Fund-supported programs, we have been able to expand our education and prevention efforts in the surrounding villages. In 2009, 20 villages were malaria-free with mortality and school absenteeism rates reduced to zero. Today, the number of malaria-free villages has more than doubled – reaching nearly 50.
Fifteen years ago, I could not imagine that such a tragedy would change the destiny of so many children. Yes, Ami could also have been saved; she could have been one of the young women I regularly see happily strolling through the village. Yet I hang on to the memory of our father-daughter relationship to achieve more every day. Malaria still claims the life of a child every two minutes. My mission is to end this disease and offer a brighter and promising future for all.
Elhadj Diop is an activist committed to ending malaria. His dedication and innovative techniques have been recognized by numerous global health actors.