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Face-to-face with malaria

Katie Howard, right, holds Lois two days before she became seriously ill with malaria. (Photo by Crystal Caviness)

The day I met Lois, the 2-year-old wearing a pale pink and white dress was bopping around the yard with scores of friends. “Visitors from America” had arrived that Saturday, and the east Kenyan village was buzzing with more excitement than the bees circling the grove of mango trees. Dressed in Sunday best and inching as closely as possible for a good view, the children laughed and screeched with delight as the newcomers greeted them with a Southern-accented version of “Jambo!”

I was among that church group visiting Bodoi, Kenya, where our congregation is building a school. Awash in a blur of new sights, smells and emotions, we eagerly made new friends as approximately 150 Kenyan children swirled around us while their mothers stood back shyly. We learned names and took selfies with cell phones, creating a mania among the youngest generation. 

The boys taught us songs; the girls braided our hair. The toddlers sat on our laps and played with our sunglasses. By the end of the day, we were no longer strangers. Despite the sub-poverty economy in this remote village of Bodoi, we left that day feeling that we had stumbled upon utopia.

Two days later, we returned to the village. Our first stop halted us in our tracks.

Lois’ grandmother met our team at the door with a somber look. “My granddaughter isn’t well,” she said. Mama Mwarema, as the entire village calls this matriarch, is a retired licensed nutritionist who returned to her home after a medical career in the large city of Mombasa. She and her husband donated the land for the school.

While Mama Mwarema retreated to another room, we quietly took a seat in the living room. Our guide and chauffeur, the vicar from a church in the city of Mtwapa, told us that Lois likely had malaria.

I knew a bit about malaria, having taken a new job with United Methodist Communications only a few weeks earlier where part of my responsibility is to support the Imagine No Malaria campaign. I spent days learning about the disease and its widespread assault, which kills 600,000 people every year, even though it is preventable and treatable. Yet, malaria remained nothing more than a faceless series of facts to me. That was about to change.

Moments later, Mama Mwarema returned with Lois in her arms. As is customary, she instructed Lois to greet the visitors with a handshake. The lethargic and feverish child complied, leaving a petite hot handprint in each of our palms. The life that had danced in Lois’ eyes two days earlier was absent.

The mild-mannered vicar prayed with a fervent plea, imploring God to deliver this child.

When Mama Mwarema left the room to give Lois to her mother, I looked around at my teammates. With tears rolling down our faces, we began to devise a misguided, but well-intentioned plan to give our malaria pills to Lois. We all had an ample supply of malaria medication, pills we were taking daily to ward off the same disease that now threatened little Lois’ life. Meanwhile, the vicar prepared to take Lois to the nearest hospital in Kanamai, a 30-minute drive away.

Two hours later, Lois returned. Yes, she had malaria, but she had received the required medication. Although she was still sick, she would fully recover.

Speaking in Swahili, Lois’ mother thanked God that the “visitors from America” had come that day – not because we had done anything for her daughter, but because we had arrived in a van – a vehicle that was available to take Lois quickly to the hospital. Without a vehicle, it would have been necessary to walk for hours, carrying the sick child in her arms.

We, too, were thankful that God had provided – something God does with perfect timing.

I was no stranger to experiencing God’s provision. I was, however, a stranger to malaria. In a moment, life got real, because malaria became real. Malaria quit being a disease that happened to other people in other places.

Suddenly, malaria became personal, a disease that stole the health and playfulness from my 2-year-old friend. I was face-to-face with malaria, up close to a disease that kills one child every 60 seconds, and praying that in this next minute, that child would not be Lois.

To learn more about The United Methodist Church’s initiative to prevent and treat malaria, visit ImagineNoMalaria.com

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