What I Learned on a Hillside in Rwanda
Submitted by Chris Helfrich on March 1, 2013
My unforgettable visit today to Gihembe Refugee Camp in Rwanda with the United Nations Foundation’s Nothing But Nets campaign reinforced two things.
One: Our collective work to fight malaria is paying off.
Two: We still have a lot of work to do to end malaria deaths for good.
More than 14,000 people live in Gihembe in northern Rwanda, although it’s difficult to call these mud houses perched on terraced hillsides home. Most of Gihembe’s residents are women and children who have fled violence in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which neighbors Rwanda to the west. The fighting there has claimed the lives of many men, leaving untold numbers of families fatherless and seeking safety in Gihembe and other camps in the region operated by our partners with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
A woman I met in the pediatric room of the camp’s small health center illustrated the progress we’re making against malaria, and Nothing But Nets’ contribution to this fight. Yvonne, a single Congolese mother who has lived in the camp for 15 years, was helping care for her 6-year old son, “George,” suffering from a routine infection. A white bed net hung above George’s hospital bed, just like every bed in the clinic.
I asked Yvonne whether any of her three children have had malaria. She said no; I was floored. I assumed that I was asking a rhetorical question to spark discussion about her family’s experience with the disease. But Yvonne explained to me that her children have slept under a bed net since they were born.
“Every single night,” she said.
What a simple, but profound, revelation. These 1.1 million life-saving nets that we’ve sent to help refugees since 2008 are reaching families in the camps. And they’re using them. Now, we have parents whose children are growing up malaria-free!
Our day in Gihembe Camp with our partners at WWE also highlighted how important our work is to provide bed nets to often-neglected groups. Since fighting erupted in DRC last April, tens of thousands of Congolese women and children have escaped the country to find safety in the camps. Today, I spent time with two teenage sisters, “Joy,” 14, and “Bora,” 13, who fled DRC last summer. Their parents were killed in the conflict. The sisters live at Gihembe, alone. Joy and Bora were reserved and stuck close together. But the longer I spent with them, the more I glimpsed their beautiful smiles and warm personalities.
These teenage girls are orphaned, sharing a tiny mud home with just enough room for a single bed that they share. And they had no bed net until we delivered one today, meaning they spent the last seven months vulnerable to malaria. With all of the horrors they’ve endured, potentially dying from a preventable disease shouldn’t be one of them. A bed net will keep Joy and Bora safe from malaria. The net also gives the girls a measure of hope in a place where one can often feel forgotten. Nothing But Nets will make sure they will not be.
Fighting malaria must remain a global priority to sustain this critical forward momentum. Our collective efforts are working and saving lives. But millions of people just like Joy and Bora still need our help protecting themselves against a devastating but preventable disease.