IN RECENT years, Nigeria has become well known around the world for its religious conflict, and the rise of the Islamist group Boko Haram. For most Nigerians, however, their greatest threat is not the terrorism that grabs the headlines but a more mundane killer: malaria.
Nigeria is a rich country of poor people — poverty on a truly massive scale. It may have one of the fastest growing economies in the world, based on large oil reserves, but it also harbours some of the worst poverty on the continent.
The country’s vast oil wealth, now threatened by the collapsing price of oil, is held in the hands of a tiny economic and political elite. Poor governance and corruption flourishes, and health services are poorly funded.
Malaria is a modern-day tragedy. It is one of those vast issues that it can feel impossible to do anything about. The statistics are staggering: an African child dies of the disease every 60 seconds. In Nigeria, this amounts to a quarter of a million under-fives every year. But it can be beaten, simply by the correct use of a mosquito net, especially for children and pregnant women, who are most at risk.
By providing such nets through partner agencies on the ground, charities such as Christian Aid have helped to turn the tide. Since 2000, malaria rates in Africa have fallen by half.
A RELIGIOUS fault-line runs through Nigeria, dividing the 180 million population into a roughly 50-50 split between Islam and Christianity.
Remarkably, in the northern town of Jos, a city where religious tension is high, a Christian Aid partner is helping to heal those tensions as it helps to heal disease.
Staff from the development arm of the Anglican diocese, the Centre for Gospel Health and Development, work with Muslim leaders to get a malaria-prevention message across.
One Muslim leader, Umar Farouk Musa, spoke of how he was moved by working alongside his Christian counterparts. “They introduced us to their malaria work six years ago,” he said, “and our partnership together has had a great impact, because you can kill two birds with one stone: combat malaria and increase trust between communities.
“The Anglican bishop came one day. He touched my hand, and he said: ‘You are an agent of change, and you will have an impact on generations to come.’
“Malaria doesn’t know who is Muslim and who is Christian. A mosquito doesn’t discriminate. When you are sick, you meet in a common place — the hospital. You access the same treatment.”
At first, the joint approach encountered a hostile reaction. “It was very difficult. Muslims found it difficult to accept help from Christians, and vice versa,” Mr Musa said. “We encountered serious resistance in the beginning, but, with a lot of advocacy and awareness-raising, we were able to overcome the challenges. We wanted to show that we walk alongside people, that we are human beings. That we are all Africans, and we can work together.”
These were sentiments echoed by the Revd Shinat Samson, in the village of Korongfang, where malaria is the most common disease. “In my pastoral greeting in church, I often talk about health problems such as malaria, and how to avoid it. We pray that God will heal this disease. We pray that the drugs they take will heal. We pray that God will protect them from further malaria attacks, and give them wisdom so they can avoid it.”
Mr Samson holds special meetings after church every Sunday, to offer prayer and support to specific groups. He dedicates two of these a month to widows, who face particular stigma. “People say widows are somehow responsible for their husband’s death,” he explains, “or criticise them if they don’t consider them to be mourning properly.”
THIS points to the lack of education that lies at the heart of the malaria crisis. Many do not have a basic knowledge about how malaria is contracted, leading to an underestimation of the importance of nets, and their misuse.
This can have sad consequences. A young mother, Martha Danjuma Bako, gave birth to her first and only child, a little girl called Blessing. Now 22, Martha said: “I was so happy when she was born. She would look at me, and I would watch her sleep. I always cuddled her and looked at her face with excitement.”
But she went on: “My baby soon started crying very often, and she wasn’t suckling; so I went to the clinic. They diagnosed her with malaria. I prayed a lot, and took her to a pastor in another community so he could pray for her when she was sick. My family really tried for me. Even my eldest sister came and stayed with me.”
A few weeks after she was born, however, Blessing died. “Sometimes I think for minutes, sometimes hours about the baby,” Martha said. “I get sad especially when I see others who have given birth. I sometimes want to forget the whole episode. Sometimes when I get worried, I find consolation in the Bible. I will pick it up, read it, and meditate.”
The problem was that, although Martha has contracted malaria on numerous occasions, she did not know how it is spread.
“When I get malaria, I get a headache, dizziness, weakness, a piercing pain in my skin, itching, and a bad stomach. I borrow money from my in-laws to treat myself, and sometimes I take some of the food I farm, that I’d usually eat, to market to sell.”
As well as providing nets, Christian Aid’s partners equip people to use them correctly. As the charity’s malaria officer, Anthony Edozieuno, explained: “It’s one thing to have a net, it’s another to sleep under it. It has to do with knowledge. The government is doing this, but there are more practical approaches for you to reach people properly. Our project does this.”
CHRISTIAN AID also supports “community-health agents”, people who are already in the community. They go house-to-house and tell people how to prevent malaria, how to hang up nets and to make sure they tuck them in under their mattresses, and how to fix them when they get holes. They identify symptoms, and make a strong case for a referral when needed. In critical situations, they can also do first aid. “We would ideally have ten in a community like this, but funds restrict us,” Mr Edozieuno says.
The work is already bearing fruit. Mary Patrick Odey, who is 47, gave birth to twins Anah and Bassey. At the age of six, Anah came back from school with a stomach ache and a fever. Despite Ms Patrick’s efforts using local herbs and a traditional healer, the girl died. “I now know it was malaria,” her mother said, “because the symptoms I recognise now.”
Thanks to the education provided by the community-health agents, another pair of twins — Mary Patrick’s grandchildren — have survived. “I have learnt to keep the environment clean,” their mother, Christiana, says, “to prevent mosquito breeding, and to re- move any stagnant water. Since I gave birth, we have all been sleeping under the mosquito net.”
Martha Bako hopes she will be given another chance to put into practice what she has learned since the loss of Blessing. “I am praying that God will give me children. I will ensure they are well-educated.”
Joe Ware works in the Christian Aid press team. The charity’s Christmas Appeal, supported by the Church Times, will receive a boost from the UK Government’s Aid Match scheme. For every £1 donated until 5 February, the UK Government will give another £1, providing twice the support for people living in poverty. To make a donation and find out more, visit www.christianaid.org.uk/christmas.