My primary goal for this year was to play more of an integral role of the girls’ time at the Center, so as they began to trickle in I made an effort to introduce myself and make the consistent presence of an excitable Western person a little less intimidating. I saw many new faces but some of the girls recognized me and called me by name, making me grin with how comfortable they were being familiar. As I was helping Sister Elizabeth put together the new schedule for the 2015-2016 school year, I managed to weasel my way into a weekly block with the girls, and when enough of them had arrived I started the first of what I hope will be many group activities: Malaria awareness and prevention through Grass Roots Soccer.*
The first order of business Wednesday morning at 8am was a pretest of 9 questions to find out what the girls already knew about malaria. These were basic true/false questions including ‘malaria is transmitted by mosquitos, true or false?’ ‘You should go to the clinic if you contract malaria, true of false?’ ‘You can prevent malaria by sleeping under a bed net, true or false?’ The first issue I ran into was the language barrier. A number of girls in the room did not speak French, and try as I might, I could not get anyone to agree to translate. Admittedly, my homemade translation of the English curriculum, I imagine, may have left something to be desired. Additionally, I couldn’t get them excited. They seemed timid, quiet, and unable to quickly follow verbal directions. I couldn’t even get most of them to answer me when I asked them a direct question like ‘what is your name?’ or to follow my directions when I told them to find an empty page in their notebooks and write the date, their name, and the word 'Pre-Test.' Blank stares. A collective wall they had put up that I was completely unable to tarnish with my enthusiasm.
After the test, I brandished the candy I had bought as an incentive so that we could go through the test questions. This instantly made them perk up, and with each question I asked I saw a room full of hands. In a country where thousands of children and adults die every year from this preventable disease (malaria is by far one of the leading causes of death in Africa as a whole and Burkina especially), you would think a group of teenagers would at least be able to tell you how the disease is contracted. Nope. Few of the questions I had asked were met with the correct response, and I was shocked to find that 18 of the 19 girls in the room believed that malaria was transmitted by eating green mangoes and shea butter. When I brought them outside to continue the line of questioning with some basic games, they were shocked to hear that green mangos and shea butter where not culprit. They were also shocked to hear me tell them that they should not seek help from a traditional healer when diagnosed with malaria. (This is something the curriculum puts emphasis on that is a little awkward to communicate as a Westerner to kids that have trusted in traditional medicine most of their lives).
For the next 90 minutes we talked about mosquitos, transmission, symptoms, prevention and treatment. Each bit of information was permeated by a game, which I then reinforced making them repeat what they had learned. At 10am I had finished in two hours what was supposed to take 45 minutes. The girls were excited and giggly after playing a game where teams stand in a circle with each member holding the edge of a pagne (the would be mosquito net) with a ball (the mosquito) balanced atop it. The goal is throw the ‘mosquito’ into the air and have everyone on the team tuck themselves under the ‘mosquito net’ before the ‘mosquito’ hits the ground. Those that failed ‘got malaria’ and had to run to the clinic (me) to get a high five before continuing the game. After the game, once I had them all seated, we recapped the information: Malaria is transmitted by mosquitos (and only mosquitos). The symptoms are fever, vomiting, diarrhea, body aches, headache, jaundice, coma and death in some cases. I can protect myself from malaria by sleeping under a properly hung, properly cared for insecticide treated net every night. If I contract malaria, I should go straight to the clinic for medicine.
Had I gotten through? Luckily there were three more practices in the curriculum to drive the information home, and although the day had started out slow with many complications, the end result had pulled together nicely. The girls had come out of their shells, become more comfortable with each other and started to speak up a little. If nothing else, it let the girls get to know me, and little by little I am getting to know them.