Peace Corps Volunteer, Ron Walters, with some of his students during a malaria lesson.
Like countless other Peace Corps volunteers, my work interests during my service have wandered far beyond my assigned primary sector. As a teacher in Northern Benin, I regularly see the ravages of malaria on a personal level. Students would go missing for weeks, and when I asked where they were, I would always receive the same, ubiquitous response – “Il est malade” (He is sick). An interview with the head nurse at my village health center revealed that the vast majority of the cases she saw on a daily basis were malaria related. Even more distressing, however, was the lack of basic knowledge about malaria among my students. Malaria, apparently, can come from the sun, green vegetables, peanuts, or oil, but mosquitoes were nowhere to be found on the list of malaria transmission methods gathered from my 50 or so 7th grade students. Fortunately, as a teacher, I had a perfect target group, who had no choice but to listen to me ramble on and on about malaria for four hours a week: my students.
The first challenge I faced was how to carry out malaria trainings for several weeks while still ensuring that my students were learning the same material as their classmates, primarily because one teacher writes the test for an entire grade level. Each grade level is broken into four “learning situations” (units) with a general theme – “Our Environment”, “On Holiday”, “The Future”, etc., and subsequently divided into “Situations”, or chapters. In a turn of good luck, my class had just reached the situation entitled “health”. While the chapter contains numerous illnesses relevant to a Beninese middle school student; rheumatism, backaches, high and low blood pressure, I saw a chance to insert malaria into the curriculum and still ensure my students would be on track for future examinations.
Keeping in place the same grammar and much of the same vocabulary, such as hospital, doctor, patient, nurse, etc., I rewrote or modified the existing texts to focus on the numerous aspects of malaria, including prevention, symptoms, and environmental control. The first lesson was delivered using a tool issued by Peace Corps Benin called a “boite à image”, a large flip book with pictures highlighting desirable behavior, myths, and prevention of malaria used throughout the country’s health centers, and the next lessons followed the modified English program. To finish the unit, I gave a quiz to my students that tested both their retention of the English concepts and of their general malaria knowledge.
The most rewarding part of the entire project, was the melding of my two interests, health and education, that offered the chance to affect meaningful behavior change. As I am increasingly learning, malaria is not solely a “health problem”, and cannot be confined to health centers and hospitals. Rather, it is a “human problem”, and needs to be tackled in all aspects of Peace Corp’s malaria work; by education volunteers interacting with their students, by environment volunteers working with community members in vector control, by health volunteers on the ground in their villages, and by economic development volunteers demonstrating to families the economic costs of malaria. As I discussed malaria’s mosquito origins with my students, one of my more energetic students piped up; “Uh! Monseiur, ca n’est pas vrai ca – Monseiur, that can’t be true!”. As the lesson continued, and as the class discovered malaria’s true origins, I saw a light switch in my skeptical student. A whole new possibility of preventative and proactive action became aware to him, and perhaps the seeds were laid that will one day germinate into a family and social circle completely free from the scourge of malaria.
written by: Ron Walters