Thursday, October 20, 2011

GHEI Handwashing Education Reaches Hundreds, And Then, Hundreds More...

For those who moan and complain about the state of the world, the developing world in particular, GHEI's Handwashing With Soap Program has seemed to me the antidote to that sort of cynical bellyaching. 

“It’s hopeless man; the world's hurtling towards 2012, the poor keep getting poorer and sicker, the rich are richer, and I can't afford the latest iPhone.  Nothing changes for the better, life sucks,” a person might say in the bored sneer of western apathy.

This person is wrong on many accounts: You can buy used iPhones on the streets of Kumasi for pretty cheap. (Of course, without showing off the latest iPhone how will people know you're better than them?) The rich are indeed richer, but average people are getting wise to that. Ghana has the fastest growing economy in the world right now. Malaria deaths are down by 20%  worldwide in the last decade.  2012 is a myth and a terrible movie.  For heaven's sake dude, it's not hopeless

Take GHEI's Handwashing With Soap Program: It's a very simple concept (teach young people when and how to wash their hands properly) and it can lead to powerful results.  Proper handwashing is a proven method in reducing instances of the biggest killer of children under five in Africa: diarrhoeal illnesses. 

Over the course of this past week, in celebration of Global Handwashing Day on October 15, the Health Team attended 7 Primary and Junior High Schools in Humjibre and Muoho to demonstrate the importance of proper hand washing.  Thanks to many donors who have generously come out in support of Humjibre's youth, GHEI has installed Polytanks (large tanks that fill with rainwater, and have taps on the bottom) at all schools in Humjibre and at one in Muoho.  

Several months ago, in my second week in Humjibre, I tagged along with the Health Team to visit Muoho Primary School and watch a handwashing outreach.  These latest outreaches followed a similar dynamic, but the swelling mass of young humanity and the soapiness were increased sevenfold.  On October 11,12, 13, Mensah, Aggie, Carly, and Saga reached over 1500 students in the Humjibre area with an educational review of handwashing.

These kids knew the handwashing song pretty well, and the way they answered the question regarding the critical handwashing times showed something all too rare in the education system in Ghana: Critical Thinking.

 “What are important times to wash your hands?” asked Aggie to the hundreds.  Several hands shot up.  Aggie chose a boy who seemed anxious to answer.

“After handling poison!” he said.  Aggie was briefly thrown off and then said, yes, please wash your hands after handling poison. The standard appropriate answers trickled in later: after toilet, before cooking, before eating.

At the D.C. Primary, I hung out among the class 5 and 6 kids.  While the younger kids were taking turns at the polytank, these older ones stood in a line in the shade. Although, they were all supposed to be silent, these kids were whispering and making fun of each other.  As I was once like them, I assimilated myself.

Do you wash your hands at home?

“Yes, of course, Mr. Obruni.  Do you wash your hands at home?”

I said yes, at all critical times.  I even wash my hands before I attempt to cook food.  They all laughed. How did they know I was a terrible cook? Incensed, I asked why, but they were laughing at the idea of a man, pounding fufu, cooking soup, serving food.  

The way life changes so fast here in Ghana, I don't think these young guys will be laughing in a few years...Having the fastest growing economy in the world means a whole lot of other changes come with it...

“At home, I tell my brothers and sisters to wash their hands.  But, me, I wash all the time,” said a boastful young man who had just lifted up his school uniform to proudly show his Manchester United jersey underneath.  Then he made a joke in Sefwi that cracked the whole group up.  I smiled and took my cue, strolling over to the polytank to watch the giggling little one press up against each other, jockeying for a chance at the tap.

I thought about the changes that Ghana is going through, and I wondered what it was like for that young man in Manchester colours at home.  I imagined how he might show his younger brothers and sisters at home what he was learning that day, and how his parents might look at him strangely and might even learn something new themselves...

As effective of an outreach that I saw from us at GHEI, I can't think of a more effective outreach than this boy showing his younger siblings how to wash their hands properly.

According to Aggie, this isn’t a lone phenomenon.  A mom in Humjibre told Aggie that her kids won’t allow her to start preparing food until they’ve seen her wash her hands.  Students teaching brothers and sisters teaching parents...GHEI reached over 1,500 students in three days, but how many siblings, parents, and friends have also been reached because of these outreaches?

So no, it's not hopeless.   

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