UMCOR / News Room / News & Features / Archives 2010 / 0426 - Church Building ‘Culture of Nets’ to Save Lives

Church Building ‘Culture of Nets’ to Save Lives

A UMNS Story

By Kathy Gilbert*

Penga Penga is a cemetery for the poor.

Over a hill, far as the eye can see, are tiny graves for babies and toddlers. Mothers and fathers have written the names of their babies on the wooden crosses that stand as tombstones on each mound. Many of the children buried here died from malaria. All of them were victims of poverty.

One of the few reliable jobs for young men in Lubumbashi is digging graves. For their heartbreaking work, they earn $35 a month.

One stone-faced young man, arms crossed, said there are three to four funerals every day just for children under 5.

“We don’t just need nets. We need medicine for treating people already affected,” he said.

Losing Children 

A baby girl lies on her back taking shallow, rapid breaths. Her young mother sits on the edge of her bed touching her, comforting her, holding her when she cries.

Dr. Mtwana Ngoie Guy Kasanka, a United Methodist doctor and missionary serving in Kamina, takes a team of United Methodists from the United States through the Shungu Clinic. He stops at the bedside of little Monga Vasiy, and shakes his head. “She is not doing well.”

Two other beds in the same small, dark room also hold sick babies and grieving mothers.

Kalombo Makonga, 18 and pregnant with her first child, holds up her arm and points to the scars on her skin made from years of mosquito bites.

She received an insecticide-treated bed net from The United Methodist Church last year because she is in the most vulnerable category along with children under 5.

She did not know mosquitoes carried the disease until she received education at a United Methodist clinic near her village. Asked if she noticed any difference in her life since using the net, she smiles shyly and says there are no new bites on her arms.

More than Nets

Shannon Trilli, executive, Global Health Initiative, United Methodist Committee on Relief, said Makonga is an example of someone who has a new “culture of nets.”

“There needs to be a culture of nets—when neighbors are using a net, when your cousin has a net, you are more likely to use one,” she said. “They see it is not weird to use a net.”

The nets also need to be distributed by local people in the community. “A stranger can’t give away a net and convince you to do something new and strange,” she said.

The United Methodist Church has been involved in distributing insecticide-treated bed nets to different countries in Africa with the Nothing but Nets campaign since 2006. On April 25, World Malaria Day, the denomination is launched a new campaign, Imagine No Malaria, to raise between $75 million and $100 million to overcome malaria in Africa by 2015.

“We have learned a lot from other programs,” Trilli said. For one thing, the church has learned one bed net per household is not enough.

In Kamina, a rural town about 200 miles from Lubumbashi, Nkulu Taifena is thankful for the mosquito net he received from the church. But he has 13 children, and one net does not protect 15 people.

Future campaigns will distribute three bed nets per household, Trilli said. The nets will be given to the community by local volunteers trained to teach the proper way to use and care for them.

Follow-up is critical, she added. “We need to collect information to see if pregnant women and young children are using the nets.”

The United Methodist Church is partnering with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The international financing has committed $19.3 billion in 144 countries to support prevention, treatment and care for the three diseases.

“It is no longer possible in a global environment for The United Methodist Church to assume it can address all the problems that exist,” said the Rev. Larry Hollon, top executive of United Methodist Communications. “But by partnering with others, we can scale up to such a degree that we can address problems on a wide scale.” 

Tell the Story 

Malaria is a killer that can be prevented and treated. In most parts of the world, it has been eradicated.

“It is very easy for us to say ‘imagine no malaria’ and then go eat a normal meal or ‘imagine no malaria’ and go to sleep at night and not think about it,” said Bishop Thomas Bickerton, chair of the Imagine No Malaria campaign. “But here in Africa there is no time; the time is now. These children are dying; we have seen them.”

The weapons they need to fight the deadly disease are not expensive or hard to obtain. Ten dollars will buy a bed net that will protect sleepers from malaria-carrying mosquitoes that attack during the night. Medicine to treat a child with malaria is cheap. Sometimes all it takes to make a neighborhood safe is a shovel and dirt to fill in ditches of stagnant water.

“The Imagine No Malaria campaign is our way to engage in a broader context. It is not just about a net; it is about education, about communication, . . . about removing standing water,” Bickerton said.

The United Methodist Church has a history of starting hospitals and clinics in hard-to-reach places like Kamina and Lubumbashi, Trilli said.

Malaria is a place for the church to start, she said. From there the issues of malnutrition, clean water, education and food production can be addressed.

“We are visitors here, even though we have a history in Africa,” Trilli said. “That makes it very important to spend time to build relationships and trust.”

How to Help

Gifts to the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) Community-Based Malaria Control Program, UMCOR Advance #982009, also support United Methodist and ecumenical health workers and hospitals as they work to combat malaria in their communities. The program provides community training on basic measures to prevent sickness, free medications and consultations to those who are ill or who are vulnerable to malaria. The program also supplies treated nets to protect pregnant women, and families with young children.

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.