A health awakening

By Elizabeth Stevens
Previously, my children didnt wash their hands before they ate, says Maryam Gado. They were often weak and not healthy. All that has changed.

If there were a bright side to the Darfur conflict, you might find it in the home of Maryam Gado. Here behind a mud-brick wall is a tiny family compound—a maze-like set of rooms and open spaces with walls built of sorghum stalks. It is breezy, light, and spotlessly clean. If there are flies in Gado's kitchen, they are scarce, and no wonder: all her food and water is carefully packaged, and her plates and pots rest under fly-proof sheets of plastic. Even the sand underfoot has been swept clean.

This, she explains, is the result of education.

The art and science of public health

Every month in the camps near El Fasher town, a team of health workers—elected by their community and trained by Oxfam—fans out to bring messages about health and hygiene to thousands of residents. The workers go house to house, teaching newcomers about disease vectors, hand washing, and the use of latrines, and they organize community-wide campaigns to clean everything from streets to latrines to household water cans.

You might think people would resent unsolicited advice about their personal habits, but the health workers generally get a warm welcome. Women, who have the primary responsibility for the care of children and homes, are happy to receive this information, say the workers. And for the most part they take the advice.

"If they don’t want to accept what we are saying, we don't go harsh on them," says health worker Halima Nasur "We just communicate the information peacefully." But the cost of not heeding hygiene messages could be outbreaks of deadly disease, so the health workers sometimes ask community leaders to intervene. "They nicely teach a woman the importance of our work to her family. Then she listens."

For the health workers, their job is a labor of love. "I believe that all the people in the camp are my sisters and brothers," says Nasur. "We are never going to let our people down."

A powerful impact

When it came to guarding the health of her family and community, Gado needed no coaxing. "From the public health women, I learned to cover food to keep away flies because they transmit diseases. I also learned about keeping things clean—our jerry cans, kitchen utensils, latrines, and my children's hands," she says. "Previously, my children didn’t wash their hands before they ate. They were often weak and not healthy. Now, they wash their hands before eating. They don't suffer from diarrhea, and if they happen to get sick, it isn't something serious."

Once learned, it is hard to forget the life-and-death importance of good hygiene practices, and according to Gado, the work of Oxfam and the community health workers is likely to have a lasting impact. "I learned these values, and I'm going to apply them throughout my life," she says. "I would like to thank all of the people who have supported us," says Gado, "and I wish them good health."