More than 1,500 people watched and cheered from the stands of the new Bo Stadium on June 5 as leader after leader told them mosquito insecticide-treated bed nets were ready for pickup in the 15 chiefdoms of the district.
The leaders also emphasized that it is now the responsibility of each adult to put up the nets and use them for the purpose they are intended.
“Everyone has the right to live,” said Bishop John K. Yambasu, United Methodist episcopal leader in Sierra Leone.
“I look forward to the day when I can say, ‘Once upon a time there was a disease in Sierra Leone called malaria, but now it is gone.’”
Video Diary: Celebration Thursday
The bed-net distribution coincides with the government’s Maternal and Child Health Week, a time devoted to the health of pregnant women and young children. With the nets, families will also receive vitamins and de-worming treatment for children under 5 years old.
The day began with brass bands and schoolchildren marching in the streets leading up to the stadium. Outside the stadium was a group of “concerned mothers” holding small handmade signs expressing the need for health care for young women and babies. One sign said, “Don’t marry anyone under 19,” in reference to girls as young as 12 who are often married to older men by their families.
Inside the Imagine No Malaria and United Methodist Committee on Relief tent was a mosquito net. People were encouraged to write personal notes of thanks and pin them to the net. The net will go back to the United States.
Beatrice Gbanga, a missionary with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries and medical coordinator for the United Methodist Sierra Leone Annual (regional) Conference, said she wanted people in the United States to know how much the people in Sierra Leone appreciated all they have done for them.
The large gathering in the city of Bo was one of 15 going on in all the chiefdoms of Bo district. Religious leaders, health care providers and government dignitaries spoke at the Bo Stadium gathering.
From June 6 to 11, people who have registered for nets and have a voucher can go to staging centers in each chiefdom to redeem the voucher for nets.
A family of five will receive three nets; one and two nets will go to smaller households.
An aggressive campaign to make sure no one was passed over started last year. Volunteers have been to each home and counted and logged the number of nets needed. A meticulous system of checks and balances at each staging center means people must have a voucher to receive their nets.
More than 350,000 nets are ready and waiting for their new owners.
On the day before the launching, excited volunteers were looking over their stock of nets and checking their lists.
Ibrahim S.M. Kpaka, district coordinator Health Alert, an advocacy and monitoring agency of the Bo district, was checking on the storeroom next to Bo District Hospital.
Kpaka talked about the informational campaigns going on around the district to make people aware of the campaign and also other ways to prevent malaria.
“Local musicians and drama, comedy teams are a good way to show the general public how to use the nets and the reason they are needed,” he said. Local artists performed a skit about the importance of using the nets at the launch.
“The nets are costly and people have to make good use of them,” he said. “I have a passion for this job. I have a love for the health of my people and keeping them informed improves their health.”
Casting a wide net
The distribution in Bo is in conjunction with the Sierra Leone national plan to distribute more than 3 million bed nets nationwide as part of an integrated health campaign that will also provide Vitamin A supplements and de-worming medication to children.
In 2010, a similar net distribution in Sierra Leone provided almost every household with three nets per family.
After the net distribution in 2010, Bishop Yambasu reported that several tribal chiefs requested help in planting United Methodist churches where none had previously existed.
Gbanga, the missionary, said the leaders want “to join a denomination that cared so much about saving lives.”
Yambasu told the June 5 gathering that the campaign was not just about handing out nets but also about education and prevention. The bishop said The United Methodist Church is working to improve and increase the health facilities in Sierra Leone.
Bed nets are working, the bishop declared.
“Today, because of all we have done, we have been able to cut the death rate of children from one every 30 seconds to one every 60 seconds,” he said.
Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tenn.