It is rainy season in the Upper West of Ghana, a beautiful time of year when the air is cooler and the landscape turns from a never ending orange to stunning green.
During my first year in Ghana, I cried with happiness when the first rains came, it felt like a miracle after the unbelievable heat of hot season, a relentless 3 months of temperatures constantly over 40 degrees Celsius, even during the night.
Although I relish the luxury of being able to jog in the evenings and sleep well at night, an unfortunate negative of this balmy time of year is my growing obsession with insect repellent, which removes my nail varnish (only gels can survive the deet) and irritates the people around me. Rainy season isn’t all good. It brings with it swarms of mosquitoes, and the associated risk of malaria. In Ghana, malaria is endemic, with 3.5 million cases per year, 20,000 annual child deaths, and an economic burden that is far too high.
I have known too many children who have died of malaria, and even more who suffer from severe disability as a result of contracting it during early childhood. I’ve also had the displeasure of severe malaria myself, which resulted in spending 3 days unconscious in a seriously under-resourced hospital where, upon waking, I received an apology for the use of second hand needles.
The Ghanaian Health Service/big NGO response to this crisis is overwhelmingly dominated by the wide spread distribution of insecticide treated mosquito nets. They are given out in Lawra, our little district in the far upper west corner of Ghana, in abundance and free of charge. I currently have 7 or 8 nets in my house, none of which I have asked for or indeed paid for.
This week alone, I have seen mosquito nets being used extensively for two reasons: to protect crops from goats, and as fishing nets. Never in my four years in Lawra have I seen a Ghanaian child or adult sleeping under a net, even, to my intense surprise, in the regional hospital, where it is widely recognized that you have a very high chance of contacting malaria, as the mosquitoes feed on the sick patients, spreading the disease quickly and efficiently.
The use of the nets for fishing is disastrous. The chemicals pollute the rivers, upsetting the delicate ecosystems and killing the fish. The very fine holes dragging all life out of the water, eventually destroying the life that communities so need to add rare protein to diets. In a district suffering so severely from hunger and food-insecurity, these nets given with the best of intentions, cause only harm.
I wonder if any of the organisations distributing the nets had thought to ask if anyone actually wanted one, or gave them any education on how exactly to use it. Did they find out if the receiver had a bed net to hang it from? Clearly they didn’t tell them NOT to use it for fishing.
Thinking carefully about the potential negative impacts of the ‘help’ we are giving is vital. Helping really can hurt.
Sarah is the Chief Executive of Action Through Enterprise (ATE) For more information go to http://ateghana.org/