Asma is sitting in front of me on a hospital bed holding her son Abdalla’s hand. He’s lying down, semi-conscious, with a chloroquine drip in his arm. She’s wearing a black abaya with gold feather trim at the sleeves.
Abdalla was sick – vomiting and in pain – so she took him to the doctor. He’s two years and three months old; children with malaria don’t tend to have very high fevers, so any illness has the potential to be malaria in disguise.
The medical officer I was with asked some questions of his own and informed me that she didn’t understand where malaria comes from. Or rather, she did, but could not connect the vector (mosquito) with the disease. She and Abdalla sleep underneath a bed net every night, yet he still has malaria.
“How is this possible?” she asks. This is a story that I’ve heard before. People are told that bed nets will protect them from malaria, but unless you are completely vigilant about when you travel and how you conduct yourself in the evening hours, mosquitoes can find you. It’s a contradiction that causes people here great confusion. Health education, in Asma’s case provided through her local mosque, could explain that contradiction and help people like her learn proper prevention methods.
I asked what made her happy, or what she looked forward to. She is still mourning the death of her husband this past April, but she is excited for the future. He left her with ownership of a small plot of land. It stands empty now, and she plans to save money until she can build a home there for her and her son. She says she knows that in that home, she will be very happy.
There’s an attitude that we confront pretty often in our discussions of what it means to be a person of faith these days. I’d call it the “religions are stupid and kill people and make everything suck” argument. It’s assumed that religious people are holding the world back. Not everyone feels this way, of course, but the view is prevalent enough to be a common feature of the discourse.
Within the Faiths Act Fellowship I see a group of thirty young people motivated by religion to eradicate malaria deaths. We’re not parading up and down the streets or burning anything. Our personal faith drives us to do good. We represent the other side of the argument – that religious people, and especially young religious leaders, are doing and will do great things. But there’s a problem: the world doesn’t believe we exist.
If we were to explain our existence to communities that have known inter-religious strife or those for whom religion is a black mark on the earth, we would be met largely with scowls and disbelief. There is a disconnect there, but it’s almost to be expected. What is worrisome is that the media is more than happy to play along with the “religions suck” argument. I submit as evidence the trailer for CNN’s special “God’s Warriors,” which was a very in-depth documentary by Christine Amanpour investigating the ways in which the Abrahamic traditions are basically racing each other to Doomsday (cue the dramatic music):
Videos and “news items” like these really do reinforce negative stereotypes about religion, making it tough for people of faith to be taken seriously when they announce that their convictions to help the unfortunate are derived from scripture. I’ve taken it upon myself to film my own documentary, which I shall title “God’s Tea Drinkers and Conversators,” to show just how worn-out the other side can really sound (cue the mysterious barnyard animal noises):
The world doesn’t think we exist because it doesn’t believe that grassroots multi-faith action to end malaria deaths can happen. We’ve got to tell them our story. We’ve got to change the conversation about religion.