After a quick breakfast, our team headed out this morning to the Kilombero River, the body of water that separates Kilombero District from its neighbor. One of our friends from the Tanzanian Training Centre for International Health came along to find some river guides; we made a deal and climbed into two massive dugout canoes. They were ships, really – probably 20 feet long and more than 2 feet deep. Our whole team plus the four river guides fit quite comfortably. We set off on a slow cruise upstream.
I got to chatting with a man named Hatari, asking him lots of questions about the river and the Kiswahili words for things that I saw around the boat. I pointed to a small white bird called “nyange-nyange” and Hatari explained its place in local mythology. If I understood him correctly, the nyange-nyange is considered off-limits for eating. The practical reason is that the bird removes and eats ticks and other parasites from the area livestock. But the other, and probably much older reason, is that it is believed that the nyange-nyange provides the impetus for the growth of human fingernails – these fingernails in turn provide the bird with its brilliant white feathers.
In time, Hatari came to ask me questions about what I was doing in Tanzania. I explained our work with the Interfaith Youth Core and Tony Blair Faith Foundation and how we were there to learn and observe. I asked him (in Kiswahili, which I am very proud of) if he thought that malaria would always exist. He paused and laughed, saying, “Malaria is…like a runny nose. It is very not rare!” He went on to explain that there are types of malaria that can linger in the body for decades, making it very hard to completely eradicate.
Hatari was adamant that real reductions in malaria deaths were only capable through increased education. I stressed that our team saw the importance of religious communities in dispensing this education along with bednets and medicines. I pointed out that the eight Fellows with me would be joined by twenty-one others who would scatter themselves across the US, UK, and Canada in order to promote interfaith cooperation on malaria. Hatari ended up asking me far more questions about the Fellowship than I asked him about Kiswahili vocabulary. I was quite happy with this turnaround; it meant that he found our work interesting and useful. And when I explained our push for interfaith cooperation on the ground in sub-Saharan Africa, I could tell that he saw the very practical nature of the program.
Still, his answer to my question about eradicating malaria was unexpected to say the least. I had anticipated such an answer to be an adamant YES, but Hatari was saying that malaria was a fact of human existence and would likely never disappear. It reminded me of a maxim that we heard often during our training in London: “Dying of malaria is like dying of a broken arm. There’s no reason why it should happen.” The real struggle for the Faiths Act Together campaign will be combating the perceived banality of a disease that affects millions.