Kenya: Beyond the mystery of the talking mosquito nets

By Omar Valdimarsson in Nairobi

Peter is ten years old, one of some sixty children between the ages of 2 ½ and 15 in the Shepherd's Children's Home in Kayole in the eastern part of Nairobi. They're fed, taken to school, given minimum medical help (we have a first aid kit, says Wasilwa Lusweti, the proud director) and have a place to sleep. About three quarters of them are orphans and have no families at all; many were found roaming the garbage-strewn lanes in the slum overshadowed by massive power pylons.

The children look well fed and healthy, although many are not quite sure to make of the group of visitors and their big bags. Every month 2-3 children in the orphanage come down with malaria. Peter has been lucky; although he has had malaria in the past, he has escaped the deadly parasite since he came to the shelter two years ago. But today is the first time he's ever seen a mosquito net - for him like the other children, it's a luxury that's always been far out of reach.

On the Africa Malaria Day, the Nairobi branch of the Kenya Red Cross and the International Federation's regional delegation in the Kenyan capital have come to the shelter to give the children mosquito nets and talk to them about malaria. Or maybe it's the other way around: the children put on two plays for the visitors and had no qualms about acting out with makeshift costumes and big teddy bears for sick infants. Quite convincing!

But the big event, of course, was the handing out of new mosquito nets - the latest model, long-lasting insecticidal nets, can withstand 21 washes. The kids were eager to put them up over their two-story cots in their bedrooms - and grateful for the help given by the Red Cross staff and volunteers there. It was even more fun to go inside and pretend you're in a cave where no one can see in but you can see out. The youngest ones held tight on to their nets and were not quite as eager as the older ones to hand the nets over to be hung up...but when they saw how Peter and the other big boys did, they naturally wanted to do the same, giggling and clapping their hands.

It's not quite certain how many of them understand the impact the new nets can have on their lives or that a flimsy little net like this could actually save their lives; it is estimated that malaria kills a child - most likely an African child - every 30 seconds. With the onset of the long rains in Nairobi, mosquitoes are already about in the home and the mud puddles around the slum appear to be perfect breeding grounds for more of the nasty buggers.

In Kenya, malaria affects 20 million people annually and kills up to 34 thousand of them. To fight this, the Kenya Red Cross, supported by the International Federation and several sister societies, has been in the forefront of the anti-malaria campaign in the country. In 2006, the society distributed some 3.4 million long-lasting insecticidal nets to children under five in 46 malaria-prone districts.

The economic impact is also massive - it is estimated that around 170 million working days are lost every year due to malaria. At the Roll Back Malaria technical consultation meeting held in June 2004, it was stated that malaria was a primary cause of poverty and puts additional burdens on health systems. It costs Africa an estimated US$ 12 billion in lost production every year.

And the sister of poverty is ignorance and superstition. Kenyan media noted during the net distribution last year that in some cases the villagers rejected the nets they had been given because they brought evil spirits who made threats and ominous comments during the night. Not far from Mombasa last month, a group of visitors from the American Red Cross came into a remote village where some of the new nets had caused trouble. The villagers were not eager to talk about the "talking nets", having realized that their reaction had been met with surprise, to say the least, in the outside world. "We have explained to them that the nets are good and that they have nothing to fear," explained a village leader. "This is all in the past now."

And to prove their point, some of the visitors were taken to a home where a net had been placed over a bed. "Much better now," said the woman living there as she breastfed her youngest child under the net that could very well ensure that the child lives well past the tender age of five.