The dust blows across the front of my hut under the eaves, rustling the thatch of the roof. A dry, sandy reminder of the Sahel. My host father, sitting on his stool across from me with his granddaughter Housey squirming in his lap stares distractedly out through the door at the baobabs and mountains in the distance. The dry season has been long, and he is anxious for the first rains.
Not one to be ignored (a strong will), Housey lifts her hand and wraps his greying beard round her tiny finger. And tugs. Dad makes a grunt of mock pain and turns his attention back to the impish cherub on his knees, bouncing her and cooing. He turns to me conspiratorially and smiles, a movement of the eyes, not the mouth. A crinkling of crows feet. It’s a sheepish gesture, as if to say, “I know a dignified man of my age, a village chief, shouldn’t be reduced to cooing over an infant. But I can’t help it. She’s perfect.”
I think of him now that i’ve returned to the United States from my service as a Peace Corps volunteer and begun the serious work of malaria prevention as a Peace Corps staff member . I think of all the landscapes his kind eyes had surveyed in his long life.
He once walked over 300 miles to attend a wedding of a cousin in Kolda. That was before the French were forced to give up on empire and retreat to the hexagon, acknowledging the Senegalese sovereignty they had usurped for almost 400 years. Since then Senegal has seen 3 president’s finish grace this democracy with a dignified exit and fourth newly elected. And on the wedding route between our home of Bandafassi and Kolda, a National Park has blossomed – a wall of warthogs and the occasional lion.
He was there in Bandafassi when the first electricity arrived. The telephone, the radio, the TV, the automobile, the cellphone. And it was in his 78th year that he and I, planting peanuts together in his field, saw our first smartphones. A cousin from Dakar arrived on a visit. Checking his email on an iPhone.
One of our favorite activities was to talk about old maps. I found a pre-independence map done by the French, back when “Regions” were “Circles” and before the local population of what would become the park of Niokolo Koba was forcibly evicted. It hung on my wall my entire service, a yellowing reminder that this culture I found myself navigating, with it’s bewildering twists and turns, was itself a piece of driftwood in the stream of history – ever flowing. I would compare it to a modern map, look for villages that have long since disappeared and ask, “Dad, what happened to Sinthiou, the one that used to be near Itato?”
That deep crinkly smile would radiate out from his eyes and he would dive into tales of cousins and friends he knew from that village (he knew everyone) and how the winds of fate had blown them about. This village well dried up. This other village was cursed. That one just faded away as the younger generation moved to the city, or emigrated to Spain or France in search of work in the great rural exodeus of the 70’s that swept across Senegal.
I think about my father this World Malaria Day and all the myriad changes he’s seen. It’s important to try to keep a sense of scale when you’re doing what I’m doing – attempting to contribute in a small humble way to one of the greatest human attempts to enact change of all time: the eradication of malaria. The eradication of a disease that was there before Bandafassi had electricity, or automobiles, or iPhones. A disease that killed Alexander the great, Caravaggio and Lord Byron. That afflicted Washington, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and the founder of the Peace Corps, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Malaria kills 780,000 people per year. Most of them children. 90% of them in sub-Saharan Africa. That’s the population of Wyoming, Alaska, North Dakota, or my home state of Vermont. Annihilated. Every year.
And there’s no village you can point to on a brittle aging map – “They came from here.” No they’re plucked from all over Africa. One here, one there. Piecemeal. Another Housey vanishing into the feverish night never to bring joy to a grandparent’s twilight years.
And most Americans will never even know they’re gone.
But I do. And in fleeting moments it haunts me. But mostly my work in malaria prevention is a work of quiet optimism. I see the dedication of those around me, from scientists to volunteers working in the field and I am inspired.
I am inspired that insecticide treated bed nets can save lives and Americans from all walks of life are donating to organizations like Malaria No More that provide nets.
I am inspired that Peace Corps volunteers in 21 countries in Africa are helping to make sure those nets get into the hands of the the people who need them most, like David Kalpakchian in Ghana who spearheaded a net distribution for underserved migrant populations.
I am inspired that men of science like Dr. Dennis Kyle, and Dr. David Sullivan are working to create the new tools that we will need to take the battle against malaria to it’s end.
And most of all I am inspired by the results.
In Tanzania under five mortality (the Houseys) fell by almost 30% from 2005 to 2010 – thousands of happy grandparents! In Senegal, a 30% drop from 2005 to 2008- thousands more, and maybe she was one of that number.Similar results have come from every country that has implemented four simple strategies: bed nets, indoor residual spraying, intermittent presumptive treatment for pregnant women, and testing with rapid diagnostic tests plus treatment with artemisinin combination therapies.
There are a lot of problems that are hard to solve: global climate change, the world economic meltdown, diminishing oil reserves. Fortunately malaria isn’t one of them. We have the proven tools to combat malaria. We see their results every day. We don’t need to loose a Vermont-sized swath of children under five each year. Children deserve to see their fifth birthday, and we have the tools to ensure that they do.
We just need to keep up the commitment, sustain our investment in these proven tools, our investment in the future.
My father passed away in the fall of 2011, and I was able to return to my village this January to grieve with the family. His grave was in a small copse of trees just past the Health Post and the Forestry Service on the edge of town. A simple ring of rust-colored stones. A few branches laid over the mound of earth.
A passerby would never know the wisdom that lay there. The years and years those eyes surveyed. The change.
Housey is growing up. She’s in her first year of school, but she confided in me that she doesn’t like it much and isn’t much of a good student. But she’s learning the alphabet and proudly told me two and two is four.
I don’t know why some children are taken when others are not. A capricious God, perhaps. And I can’t say with certainty that the nets that USAID purchased and I helped distribute are why she’s still here. But I like to think so – I like to think I played some small part.
She will grow up. She will see the map change even further – paved roads, new cities. She’ll see solar panels power the whole village and her high school will have computers with the Internet. She’ll have a daughter or a son. And one day she will sit with her granddaughter in her lap and tell her how we overcame malaria.
In loving memory, Mamadou Keita