I view my vacations as an adventure and an opportunity to share good times with friends and family. However, my last vacation, thanks to malaria, was more crisis than adventure and nearly a sad occasion rather than a happy one.
Just a few weeks ago, I travelled the 240 kilometers from Lilongwe, where I work, to my home village, the town of Balaka. It is located in one of the hottest districts in Malawi, which during the rainy season makes it very conducive for swarms of mosquitoes to breed.
Is this really something we Africans should get used to?
I was full of expectations that I would meet my aging granny brimming with joy to welcome her grandson, as she always does. Instead, I found her feebly lying on a mat in the living room. She hardly recognized me on first glance, and the malarial pain could be read on her wrinkled face.
“She started showing signs of malaria yesterday,” my Aunt Renata told me, “and I went to our community health assistant who gave me some medication. Things are not yet all right, but I can see some improvement, and we believe she will be better soon.”
Aunt Renata added in a matter-of-fact way that they are “used to seeing granny suffer from malaria” every year around March and April. I knew from my personal experience she was right. However, I reacted to the ‘used to’ reference she uttered. I believe malaria needs to be eradicated and we should never accept that people suffer from the malaise caused by malaria.
Typically there are only three people living at my granny’s homestead, because most of the family has moved off to urban areas. So when granny gets sick, things really go haywire. My aunt and a younger cousin literally have to carry the old woman in and out of the house for basic functions. When the cousin goes to school, my aunt calls for the neighbors living 200 meters away to come and help. When the neighbors are not available, my cousin must stay home and miss classes to help my aunt and granny with the household chores. Is this really something we Africans should “get used to?”
Malaria's curse reaches across the centuries
The elderly are not the only generation to suffer from malaria. I have had my own encounters with the disease dating back to before I started primary school. I’m told I used to suffer from malaria almost every three months. Unfortunately, the nearest good health facility was at the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College Clinic, which was about six kilometers away with no public transport.
My mum would carry me on her back and walk that distance to get medical care for me. That meant for one or two days she was absenting herself from her primary school teaching job. Consequently, her pupils suffered too, as they delayed in covering the course work in the subjects she used to teach. If it was not my mum sacrificing her day’s work, then it was my dad taking on the sacrifice.
Malaria’s curse reaches across the centuries and decades as well as generations. Last October my young son, Wala Sekeleza, was diagnosed with malaria, and my wife and I found ourselves experiencing what our parents went through when I was young.
Both my wife and I arrived home late after work to hear our housemaid report that Wala needed medical attention for what looked like malaria. Without delay after our long day, we drove to a clinic in the city centre where indeed he was diagnosed with malaria and received some medication.
That night we never rested as the child struggled to breathe and his body temperature rose. We thought it was the effect of the malaria drug he had taken and the condition would subside. Next day we were back in our offices only to get a call from the housemaid that Wala’s condition had worsened.
I picked up my wife at her workplace, then drove back home to take Wala to the main government hospital, where he was admitted and diagnosed with pneumonia and malaria. Wala was in the hospital for two days, during which we shared his distress. Work of course went by the wayside during that time.
We live with the fear
During that episode I remember wishing that Wala had received a vaccine against malaria, just as he had been vaccinated against other diseases. My wife and I felt bewildered about his illness, as our children sleep under a treated mosquito net every night and we regularly spray our house for mosquitos.
A month after Wala’s episode, my son was given the pneumococcal vaccine and he never suffered pneumonia again. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about malaria, and we live with the fear that our children may again be stricken by this terrible disease.
A vaccine for malaria would do wonders for so many people in Malawi, especially in rural areas where access to better hospitals is very limited. In the big picture, kids free of malaria would not be regularly absent from class. Teachers who have kids would also give their best in class as they would not be busy attending to their kids attacked by malaria, as my mum did in the 1980s when I was a child. And hopefully we can see the day when children, and parents, and grannies can enjoy themselves together in a world free of malaria.