Ask an American what malaria is, and he might say it's a disease you can get from mosquitoes, if you travel to Africa, Asia or South America. That's all. Few could even name one person who has ever had malaria. When my husband took me to a hospital in New York City a few weeks ago, because my malaria made me very ill again, we could not even find a doctor who had ever treated this disease. Finally, an African doctor who practices in the city helped me.
For us, it is a devastating disease. As a little girl, I already suffered from malaria, as did my parents, sisters and brothers. Two of my sisters and my son died from the disease. Just last year, I lost my nephew, an active young boy 14 years old, to malaria. Another nephew died just months ago, as I myself lay stricken with my sickness in a different hospital. He was a brilliant and gifted 16 year-old, and the pride of our family. We miss him terribly.
The sad reality is that my story is not unusual in my country, Uganda -- a beautiful land that Sir Winston Churchill called the "pearl of Africa." You could even say it is the story of the people of all Africa, as malaria is the most deadly disease in many parts of our great continent. Millions of people die from it -- and millions more die from dysentery, typhus, AIDS and other diseases that might not have been fatal if they did not have malaria at the same time.
The root causes are known. Mosquitoes are the vectors transmitting malaria. Medicines that formerly protected us, and saved people, have lost their potency. Now, there is a lack of new effective medicines, and what exist are very expensive and hard to get. Many people simply can't afford the medicines, or else they would have no money left for food or other things. There likewise is no powerful vaccine against malaria, and many experts say there will never be one, because no one ever seems to become immune, even after getting malaria over and over.
Malaria is a great enemy of development, as it makes young and energetic people sick and weak -- and even kills them. It strikes quickly, leaving people unable to work or go to school or take care of their families, within days after they get infected.
Fighting malaria is not only a humanitarian need. It is also economically important, both for the developing countries and for aid providers like the United States. Something most people don't realize is that the same African countries that are most infected by malaria are also the poorest ones on our continent. That is because the disease makes so many millions of people in those countries too sick and weak to earn a living or cultivate their fields.
I myself have suffered high fevers for days, vomited until I thought I had no stomach left. It has left me dehydrated, thirsty and weak, and sometimes I could not even tell day from night. It is a terrible disease. You just can't imagine.
People in the north, in the United States and Europe, always think of AIDS when they think of troubled Africa. They should remember that malaria is even more important for many tropical countries. It affects more people, kills more, and kills them more quickly. And it makes them sicker than AIDS does, until that disease is very advanced in their bodies.
What can be done to save our people? The first thing we need is more support for medical research, to develop new medicines and help people who are already sick with malaria.
Second, we must try to kill the mosquitoes by spraying them. I know many well-meaning people say DDT is not good for the environment. But it is still the only fully effective means to kill the mosquito that causes malaria. It also keeps them out of our houses, because the mosquitoes do not seem to like the smell of DDT. And the way we use it won't hurt animals, birds or fish, because we just spray it on the walls of our houses.
Nothing works as well as DDT, and it is the only pesticide that the mosquitoes are not resistant to. We only need to spray tiny amounts on our houses one or two times a year and we are protected. Without DDT, the mosquitoes are everywhere, and they come into our homes and bite us whenever they want.
If people in Africa are to be saved, we must stop the primary cause, the mosquito that carries malaria. Of course we are concerned about our environment. We live in it. But should we not be concerned about our loved ones, our people, first?
Third, and just as important, we must help develop sanitation systems and dry out puddles and swamps that are breeding grounds for mosquitoes. We can educate our people about malaria. We can let them know that it is preventable -- that they must begin to take some responsibility themselves to eradicate this terrible disease from their families and our country. But we must have pesticides, too. We must have DDT.
In Uganda, some other women and I are developing a project called "Kogere," named for a group of Ugandan women rulers who were equal to men. We take local fibers, make them into traditionally crafted mats, and convert the mats into high quality ladies' handbags. We are beginning to export the bags to the United States, and even the Smithsonian Institute is interested in buying them for their shops.
But we do not want only to sell handbags. We want to create income that will change the lives of families and save lives in Uganda. Many of the women we have organized have few options to earn cash. The income generated from the sale of these bags helps women, especially single unemployed women, to support their families, to be able to buy the drugs that are needed to ease suffering from malaria and, yes, sometimes from AIDS, too.
I am not a medical doctor or a politician. I am just an African woman with a wish. That wish is that we join hands together with other Africans, and with Americans and Europeans, to --
- educate our people about what they can do personally to combat malaria;
- influence our leaders and politicians to make the right decisions about the most effective means to fight malaria, like the use of DDT; and finally
- find and join with friends who have the financial resources to start effective campaigns that can finally end this disease that is wiping out the future of Africa - our precious children.
With everyone's help, we can finally make Africa free of this horrible disease, the same way that Americans and Europeans did in their countries half a century ago.
Fiona Kobusingye-Boynes is a Ugandan farmer and businesswoman. This article is taken from testimony she gave at a recent Congress of Racial Equality "teach-in" about Eco-Imperialism, held in New York. She also submitted a similar written statement to the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Energy and Natural Resources, as part of its hearing on sound science and public policy, February 4, 2004.