Adventure seekers know the village of Marangu, Tanzania as the gateway to Mt. Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa. However, before you reach the trailhead, veer to the left onto a winding, rutted, dirt road, and you’ll discover a lesser-known corner of Marangu.
This is home to Ngaruma Parish, a community of 700 or so Lutheran worshippers, and ground zero in Tanzania’s fight against malaria. Mosquitoes do not naturally thrive in the lush, cool, mountain region. But in the past decade or so, factors including climate change and increasingly mobile citizens have helped spread the deadly disease to a community lacking both immunity and familiarity with malaria prevention tools such as insecticide-treated bed nets.
“In this parish we had many people die of malaria,” Pastor Anna Eva Makyao tells visitors. Like most people she knows, she herself has battled the disease. Nationwide, Tanzania has made inspiring progress against malaria. Through the support of a range of agencies and partnerships including The Global Fund, the President’s Malaria Initiative, USAID, the United Nations Foundation’s Nothing But Nets campaign and others, millions of nets have covered the east African nation, clinics have begun using quicker, more accurate diagnostic tests, and malaria deaths have dropped by 60 percent, according to Christoph Benn of The Global Fund.
Malaria prevention, however, means more than just bed nets. Faith-based organizations provide critical education outreach, teaching people the basics of malaria. After training by our partners with the Lutheran Malaria Initiative, supported by the United Nations Foundation, Pastor Anna learned to use her pulpit to teach parishioners why malaria is dangerous and how to keep safe. “This kind of education was needed,” she says.
Her message is amplified by 16 community health volunteers who hike among the nearby valley’s tiny family plots of broad-leafed banana plants, visiting wood or mud brick homes to check and see if the 35,000 people in the area—Lutheran, Catholic, or Muslim—are keeping malaria at bay. They are part of the Diakonia Program, which is Greek for “service.” One recent drizzly morning, she and her volunteer field workers looked in on three generations touched by the disease.
Pamela Timotheo Koka received a free bed net from the government when she was pregnant with daughter Mary, now 18 months. Mary and her brother Elihuruma, 6, sleep under a net, which health workers taught their mother to tuck under the edges of their bed to create a protective barrier against malarial mosquito bites. Pamela and her husband sleep under one, too. Now, Elihuruma doesn’t end up in the hospital with fevers and weakness like he used to. He sings in the choir and goes to the church-run Montessori school. And Pamela herself, once worried malaria might take her life, is healthy enough to tend her chickens and goats, work in her field, and care for her children.
“I sleep well when I know the mosquitoes aren’t biting us,” she said.
Her brother-in-law next door, Lameck Godson Koka, isn’t so lucky. His bed net has worn out and he doesn’t have the $5 needed to buy a replacement. His mother, Haikasia Godson Koka, in her 70s, sleeps under a net faithfully every night, avoiding her frequent malaria-induced backaches.
These messages—knowing malaria symptoms and understanding the importance of doctor visits and sleeping under nets—is clearly getting through to the youngest residents of Ngaruma Parish. In Pastor Anna’s turquoise-and-white concrete church on a sunny and cool Sunday morning, children held up hand-lettered signs with slogans like Malaria Inatibika—Swahili for malaria can be cured—as part of a song about preventing the disease.
These Sunday school children received some of the 12,000 education booklets distributed by LMI to Lutheran dioceses across Tanzania. LMI leaders estimate the grassroots outreach effort has reached more than 1 million people so far. The fight, Pastor Anna says, “it is not finished yet.” Local doctors emphasize that old nets need replacing. And not everyone who needs one is covered. But there is hope.
“That’s what we tell people,” Pastor Anna says. “You can be healed from malaria.”
The United Nations has committed to prevent malaria through the Millennium Development Goals. The UN Foundation helps support work to end malaria by 2015 through support of faith-based efforts such as the Lutheran Malaria Initiative, and launched the Nothing But Nets campaign in 2006 to help cover families across Africa with bed nets. Since then, Nothing But Nets had raised $40 million from hundreds of thousands of U.S. supporters to send more than 6.5 million life-saving nets.