Ours is a brand new game

Meeting with the village elder

Our team rolled out of Ifakara town this afternoon heading…some direction – I’m not sure where – and drove more than a few kilometers out. We headed down another very bumpy road to a small village hidden in something approximating a small forest. The homes were very scattered, and almost all were underneath very tall trees. It reminded me a bit of being in the state park back home where my Dad works.

We met with the village elder, a fellow who I would estimate to be around 45 years old. Apparently this is a recent development. Village “elders” are often younger than they would have been a generation ago. They are voted into office by the residents, in this case something like 300 people. Until I find out the actual name of the place, I will refer to it as Ginger Village, since we were greeted by a woman who had just returned from her plot with a handful of crops: fresh ginger root.

We had come to Ginger Village to ask its residents how they were affected by malaria. We are trying to collect stories of malaria and faith communities here in Tanzania, so speaking to a wide variety of people is important; earlier in the day we had visited with a great many secondary school students, for instance. Meeting with the elder was important – we had to seek his permission to interview the residents of his place. He was very gracious and happy to have us. He answered many of our questions and then led us on to visit other families.

And so it went. We stopped in, exchanged pleasantries, chit-chatted a bit about malaria, and moved on. The stories were eerily similar. Government voucher programs, some funded by western aid organizations, provide free bed nets to pregnant women and children 5 years and younger. Anybody else is, for lack of a better word, screwed. No freebies for them. A proper net with permethrin will cost around 5000 Tanzanian shillings (a little less than $4). Needless to say, families like these don’t exactly have such disposable income. Many of them had bed nets, but not enough to cover the whole family. Some weren’t treated, and others were very old.

Aside from the stories of bed net woe, which we expected in one form or another, we also made sure to inquire about the role that religious communities might play in helping educate the faithful and distribute nets and medicine. No one that we spoke with seemed to think this could happen. Ginger Village seemed to be more or less Roman Catholic, but they could have been any religion, really.

In explaining our work with the Faiths Act Together campaign and the work of the Faiths Act Fellows in Africa, we pointed out that we want to inspire and connect faith communities to each other and to their constituents in the context of friendship and cooperation to eradicate malaria deaths. This idea, when translated into Kiswahili, is generally well-received, but only insofar as it seems to be a practical solution to a severe problem. Churches and mosques and temples working on malaria, let alone across faiths, is a foreign idea. The hopes and plans that we bring are brand new. And while we don’t expect to fully flesh out an interfaith collaboration scheme in the nine months that we’ll be working as Fellows, we certainly expect to build the framework.

The fact that this endeavor is brand new actually might work for us. We’re not going to have to fight an uphill battle against entrenched, inimical views that will turn local populaces against us. We’re not airlifting a tractor to a remote village and showing people how to use it. We are trying to develop existing community-based assets that will be fully owned by Africans. And in starting from Square Zero, we can define the parameters of our work and truly involve the people for whom malaria is a constant threat.

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