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From childhood on

Brigitte Osterath, Ziniare, Burkina FasoApril 24, 2014

Burkina Faso in western Africa suffers a heavy burden from malaria. But the country is doing its best to combat the disease - and efforts are focusing on schoolchildren.

Children who have had malaria raise their hands in Burkina Faso schoolroom (Photo: Cécilia Conan)
Image: Cécilia Conan

In a classroom in the town of Ziniare I am looking into 80 young, dark faces. The children, around eight years old, are sitting at their desks eager to show what they've learned. Because what they have learned in this class might save their lives.

Like in so many other African countries, malaria is not just something these children read about in textbooks. It is real - and it is and all around them.

"Who has ever had malaria?" the teacher asks her pupils. The hands of almost each of the 80 children shoot up, all at once. Only one child in the classroom has never had the disease - yet.

Malaria is the leading cause of death at healthcare facilities in the country, and most of the dead are children. With Burkina Faso's population of 17 million, it recorded almost 7 million cases of malaria in 2013. Especially from August to November, after the rainy season has started, malaria cases explode.

Learning the rules

The Burkina Faso government says the fight against malaria is its top priority. Health minister Lene Sebgo has the ambitious goal of halving the number of malaria cases within five years.

Burkina Faso Health Minister Lene Sebgo (Photo: Cécilia Conan)
Health Minister Lene Sebgo has ambitious plansImage: Cécilia Conan

Schoolchildren have an important role to play in this plan, says Patrice Combary. He coordinates the National Malaria Control Program, which is part of the Ministry of Health. "Schoolchildren are ready to follow their teacher," he explained. "They believe in what the teacher says, and they know it by heart."

And indeed, that becomes quite obvious in the classroom.

"How do you prevent malaria?" the teacher asks in French. Again, all children raise their hands. Then one boy stands up and shouts: "By treating mosquito bites!" - "Is that enough?" the teacher asks back. Now a girl shoots up: "No! You have to kill the mosquitoes too!"

This goes on for several minutes. In military style, the children shout the answers back at their teacher. It's even hard for my interpreter to keep up. Apparently, teachers hammer those rules home - until the kids know them by heart, as Combary said.

Staying positive

Teaching children how to prevent and cure malaria infections has been part of the national school curriculum for years. But recently, the government has updated the way the rules are communicated. Teachers used to teach the children what not to do. Now, they are told what to do.

Ziniare school in Burkina Faso (Photo: DW/Brigitte Osterath)
Ziniare school is about 40 kilometres away from Burkina Faso's capital, OuagadougouImage: DW/B. Osterath

Instead of showing them pictures of people sleeping without bed nets, teachers now show them pictures of people using these bed nets, as advised by the health ministry.

Also within this strategy, a French expert for educational games designed the Moski kit, which includes a malaria board game.

Reaching the malaria-free village

"One, two, three, four," a small girl counts, moving her game piece forward on the board. She reaches a green field showing a doctor and his patient, and says loudly: "Right way: At first malaria symptoms, go to a doctor."

The children have gathered outside around several big wooden tables, each with a boardgame on it. One after the other, the children roll the dice and move their game pieces forward. At green or red squares, they must correctly describe the wrong or respectively right kind of behavior. Bad descriptions prevent advancement. The child who reaches the goal first - a picture of a happy and malaria-free village - wins.

Burkina Faso schoolchildren playing malaria boardgame (Photo: Cécilia Conan)
Children are learning how to cure and prevent malaria through playingImage: Cécilia Conan

The children play intently, and they all shout out the full rules whenever they reach a green or red square.

Kids educating parents

"At home, the kids do what they are told by their teacher," says Patrice Combary of the National Malaria Control Program. "They will convince their parents and their neighbors to change their behavior."

The program is still very young, Combary says, adding that the kits and teacher training are expensive. He says Burkina Faso will only be able to afford for 12 schools per year to adopt the teaching method and board game.

But already, there are signs that something is changing in the community of Ziniare. And as Combary says, this change starts with the kids.

A young boy from Ziniare school tells me: "My bed net at home was torn and I told my parents that they had to change it - like we had learned at school." Because having a torn mosquito net is "the wrong way," he said in repeating one golden rule of the malaria board game. He says that his parents changed his bed net the next day.

Brigitte Osterath among the children at Ziniare school in Burkina Faso (Photo: DW/Brigitte Osterath)
DW reporter Brigitte Osterath among the children at Ziniare schoolImage: DW/B. Osterath

His teacher steps in. "Your parents told me that you insisted on it being changed that same day." The boy nods.

Yet without a vaccine, it will still be a while until Burkina Faso is malaria-free - like the happy village in the game.