Sierra Leone Diary Day 4: Religious leaders find inspiration in holy texts for antimalaria campaign
I was tasked today to be rapporteur to the "Khutba (sermon) Group": twelve Muslim participants at the "Faiths Acts to Save Lives" workshop in Freetown Sierra Leone. We were reviewing a Muslim reflection on malaria in the Foundation’s health messaging booklet. This is for use in a national malaria prevention campaign led by religious leaders.
All the resources and training notes were being critiqued by 70 Church and Islamic leaders prior to becoming a key tool in the training of Malaria Faiths Ambassadors in two pilot areas of the country.
The reflection my group were reviewing was the work of Karem Issa, an alumnus of the Faiths Act Fellowship programme, and his father, a doctor. It was well received. But making an actual sermon was another matter. The first consensus was that a set of bullet points and relevant quoations from Hadith and the Qur'an, rather than a model sermon was needed.
There were two main themes: the preservation of life, drawn from the core Maqasid al Shari'ah (principles of right living) and the prevention of disease attested to in several Hadith. But most notable was the saying "Allah has not created a disease without creating a cure for it, which may be known to some and unknown to others". A message that needs to be heard where there is a fatalistic belief that malaria is inevitable.
Some of the Hadith sayings, are strikingly like the teachings of Jesus. "On the day of Judgement, Allah will announce: O son of Adam, I was sick yet you did not visit me. He will reply, O Allah, how could I have visited You since you are the Lord of the worlds? Allah will say: Did you not know my servant so and so was sick, yet you did not visit him? Should you have visited him you would have found Me with him".
An hour later Bishop Biguzzi, the Xaverian Roman Catholic Bishop of Makeni - the Xaverians are a missionary order - was telling me how one of his Sierra Leonian priests had refused to leave him when he was sick in hospital with malaria and had slept on a camp bed in his room for two nights.
We finished well before those looking at a Christian meditation on health that was criticised for not having enough biblical quotations. It’s not often that Catholic and Anglican bishops work together with Pentecostal ministers. It takes time.
The other groups were brilliant, picking up primary health care mistakes in a series of cartoons depicting different malaria messages. There needed to be more rope portayed so the bed net could be tucked in around a floor mat. Why wasn't the husband accompanying his pregnant wife to the anti-natal clinic? Why was there a large baby in between the two parents under a net - not recommended and so on. All will be corrected.
Dr. Patrick Turay was chairing the day. He had virtually built up the Holy Spirit hospital in Makeni from scratch after the civil war. He asked everyone to raise their hand if their blood pressure had been checked in the last month. A suprising number of hands went up. Probably 50 percent more than in Hackney. Our participants clearly took non-communicable diseases seriously. We will all be given the offer of a test when we go into the conference hall tomorrow. I'd say most of the organising team will have results through the roof. Things can be a little stressful organisationally when 30 per cent more people turn up than you expect.
By the end of the day we had 48 people signed up for future training from the north, south, east and west of Sierra Leone as MFAs - Malaria Faiths Ambassadors - all volunteers. One was from the Ministry of Health.
We hope for 20 more tomorrow or next week when some of the national religious leaders appoint them.
Sierra Leone Diary Day 3: Malaria health workshop gets underway
We drive down to the workshop past St. Mary's Supermarket that features a Hippie Jesus striding out behind a giant Happy Easter shop sign. Perhaps this is what David Livingstone meant by "Christianity. and Commerce.
In a 60 per cent Muslim country this raises a major theoretical question about market rationality. Two solutions: either Sierra Leonian Muslims are laid back about religious difference or there are no supermarkets apart from St. Mary's for miles. Both I've learnt are true.
Past school children immaculate in their school uniforms, emerging from tiny shacks. Rush hour in Freetown but we get to the venue. Peter Salifu has arrived overnight from NIFAA, the Nigerian Interfaith Action Association. He had taken four separate planes to travel about 500 miles as the crow flies from Abuja. Over one hundred squeeze into the conference hall, most arriving well before starting time.
We join a large reception party for the First Lady, Mrs. Sia Nyama Koroma who is accompanied by the Vice-President's wife, Mrs. Kadia Sam-Sumana.
She speaks of malaria as endemic in Sierra Leone causing 50 per cent of outpatient visits and 38 per cent of under-five mortality rates. "Let me publicly state "she says "that I will continue to actively support this initiative of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation to kick malaria. My office also stands ready to help you not only on the issue of malaria, but on any public health issue". She repeated the offer chatting in the tea break.
Sheikh Conteh gets the first big laugh by talking about putting health messages into "Christian khutubahs" and "Muslim Friday sermons", then insisting it wasn't a mistake.
But there was nothing to laugh about in the national medical statistics given by the manager of the National Malaria Control Programme, Dr. Samuel Smith.
The doctor/dentist ratio was one per 57,000 people. The country had only 1,430 nurses and 80 midwives for a population of 5.67 with 70 per cent living on less than one dollar a day.
There is a lively question and answer session between the faith leaders and Ministry of Health and Sanitation. The Ministry folk are at times had hard pressed to come up with answers to some sharp questions.
Bishop Biguzzi, the Catholic bishop of Makeni, a missionary bishop in his 70s diffuses it with the enquiry whether the Ministry has a cure for old age.
His fellow Archbishop of Freetown and Bo, Charles Tamba, enjoyed that. It occurs to me what a perfect cover for a bald patch the episcopal red hat is. Probably used to cover a tonsure so not far off.
We break for lunch at 2pm. Only about one hour late. Not bad for African Generous Time AGT (cf Greenwich Mean (time).
Sierra Leone Diary Day 2: Preperations underway for interfaith malaria workshop
"Sheikh Abubakar Conteh met us on a bridge over one of Freetown's creeks in the heart of the city. We'd met before and his greeting was warm.
Men holding hands as they walk along, a nice bit of African culture.
He took us down a concrete path, winding past an open sewer, to his compound. There was a giant tureen bubbling in the yard. Up several flights of stairs to his sitting room. No electricity he explained. But a room full of his life and the Islam of hospitality, love and warmth.
As President of the Inter-religious Council, he would opening the workshop tomorrow. He had played an outstanding role with other religious leaders in attempting to end the civil war at the turn of the Millennium. We talked a bit about protocol. The First Lady would speak last in the opening ceremony so no-one followed her before tea. He had already got the opening prayers organised.
Sheikh Conteh was going to a funeral and emerged every bit the Muslim leader in a blue gown and hat. Our colleague from South Africa, Rev. Dr. Liz Thomas from ARHAP, the African Religious Health Assets Programme, took some photos as we went over the first morning of the workshop. It took a lot of ingenuity to transmit to London at 5 megabytes a second.
There is always this sense of extremes in Africa that the communications revolution still hasn't yet overcome. True, mobile phones are a transforming miracle. But no water and no electricity are the lot of many, not simply the rural poor.
It is difficult not to admire religious leaders, national and local, in this situation facing out, plugged into international communities but, facing inward and living to a great extent the reality of their local communities. Part of global Churches and global umma yet lucky if something comes out of the tap that is drinkable.
We'll be seeing a lot of them tomorrow. We can learn a lot from them when it comes to living in a globalised world but touching ground and taking root.
Sierra Leone Diary Day 1: Faiths Act Team Arrive in Freetown
Sierra Leone had definitely been en fete. The remains of the bunting and the 50th anniversary of Independence posters were still there. The little hotel at the Lungi jetty had been jollied up and there was talk of new boats for Pelican Water taxis to get you to Aberdeen Bridge in downtown Freetown. But it was the same old boat and night passage with a Kung Fu movie on the boat video, nice white wake outside with spray through the window. We had a senior serving British naval officer at the High Commission behind us, who'd come back after being with British Forces who ended the civil war in 2000 - several did - and we had life jackets which made you even hotter. One small step to SEALdom. Well, at least to Master and Commander without the sails.
The Naval officer was very supportive of the workshop we are planning on Wednesday with religious leaders. He got the idea immediately; faith leaders had the legitimacy and trust to teach people about malaria with authority and conviction. They could make a big difference. The owner of the boat liked the idea too: "you've come to the right place if it's about malaria". The rains had started and people were getting infected as the mosquitoes bred in a pools that accumulated. A mining guru at the airport pointed out a burst plastic water bag on the floor as a good mosquito maternity unit. Every other visitor until proved otherwise is a mining guru or works in an NGO.
The hotel hadn't changed either. The lock on my door didn't work: "the rain's got into the lock". Maintenance "might" come in the morning. Right. It would be nice to get in and out unattended though.
Well, when you run a workshop on malaria you definitely get the bad hex award if you catch it. We got a canister of mozzy-spray from reception and sprayed out the rooms and came choking out to sit like refugees in the foyer. It was probably a mixture of plutonium, bleach and DTT only allowed in Africa. Certainly killed the bugs but acted like tear-gas. Half and hour later the room could just about support human life.
Next day was detailed final planning and a walk through at the hotel where the workshop would happen. It was run by a giant Beijing-based conglomerate that had built bits of the Beijing Olympics. They was impeccable: flexible and helpful. Welcome to the new Africa.
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