Friday, March 6, 2009

Another Western Solution for an African Problem

A few months ago, I learned that the wife of a Burkinabè friend had fallen ill with malaria, a common and sometimes fatal disease here in beautiful Burkina Faso. So when I saw him next, I naturally inquired after her health. Thank goodness, she was better after having received emergency treatment for her condition. I asked if they use a mosquito net over their bed at night. He said that they do. “Hmmm…” I said, “So how did your wife manage to get malaria?” He looked at me like I was considerably less intelligent than I looked. “Because mosquitoes bite at other times too!” he replied.

Judging from what I’m reading in magazines and seeing here in Burkina, mosquito nets impregnated with insecticide are being lauded as the latest solution to the age-old problem of malaria in Africa. In a recent article in a magazine specializing in African affairs, they were called “the only effective solution”. Everyone seems to be getting on the bandwagon. Charitable organizations are importing and distributing them by the thousands in Burkina alone. Which probably explains why I see some being sold along the streets and roads of Ouaga, each with a “Not for Resale” notice on the package!

As with other western solutions to African problems, this one appears to be at least partly based on assumptions that may or may not be true in places like Burkina Faso. It assumes that people basically sleep in beds in rooms in houses (or some kind of house-like building) similar to the way we do in North America. After all, the mosquito nets have to be attached to something to be hung up. However, in Burkina, especially in the villages, many people (primarily children, but some adults too) sleep on simple mats on the ground, quite often outside in an open courtyard. There is nothing to which to tie the mosquito nets.

There also appears to be the assumption that mosquitoes are primarily a problem at night. Even if that were true, it must be realized that darkness falls at 6 p.m. in Burkina. People haven’t even eaten supper by that time, and it will a long while yet before they go to bed. Ample opportunity for mosquitoes to do their dirty work. The truth is that mosquitoes are most active at dusk and dawn when people are either outside in their courtyards socializing at the end of a day’s work, or up and out, preparing for a new day.

And finally, there appears to be the assumption that given the option, people will welcome the mosquito nets as lifesavers and make every effort to use them. In reality, the nets are often seen as a nuisance that make an already uncomfortable situation even worse. Due to their fine mesh, they greatly reduce the airflow of even the smallest, welcome, nighttime breeze, adding significantly to the discomfort of already hot, humid nights.

Does this mean that all is lost? Not at all! Mosquito nets are great for keeping annoying flies and other biting insects off sheep, goats, and cattle. This enables the animals to grow bigger and fatter since they don’t expend so much energy twitching and running around to rid themselves of the pesky beasts. They also make great veils and fashion accessories for bridal outfits, not only enabling even poor brides to have a lovelier dress, but also creating additional work and income for local tailors.

And finally, communities around Lake Victoria have discovered that mosquito nets are cheaper and more effective for catching and drying the fish that constitute their livelihood. The extra fine mesh of the nets enables fishermen to catch even the smallest fish in the lake (the fact that this eliminates their breeding stock for tomorrow is not a concern for people whose main aim is to eat today). An added benefit is that torn nets are freely replaced by the donor agency (which still believes people are using them for mosquito protection).

As for the actual problem of malaria, insecticide impregnated mosquito nets are, at best, only a partial solution, provided people use them for that purpose at all. Like my Burkinabè friend astutely observed, malaria-carrying mosquitoes don’t wait for you to get under your net at night before they consider you fair game for their draculan attentions. And it only takes one bite…

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