Real lives

Real lives

 

Two friends serve as ambassadors of hygiene in a rural community

girl advoacte
© UNICEF Gambia
Eighteen-year-old Jay Secka from Checken in The Gambia’s North Bank Region sensitizes a group of children on the importance of maintaining proper hygiene and sanitation practices

Lunch had been consumed and all chores completed. Eighteen year-old Jay Secka, a Grade 12 student from Checken Village in The Gambia’s North Bank Region, informed her mother that she was going to hold her weekly hygiene awareness session with other young people in her village. On her way, she stopped to collect a friend and fellow advocate, 12 year-old Isatou Secka, a Grade 6 Madrassah (Islamic school) student. 

Less than fifteen minutes later, they were talking to a group of children aged 8 – 18 years about improving and maintaining good personal hygiene and environmental sanitation.

Despite their difference in age and educational background, both Jay and Isatou’s friendship was crystalized by a common aspiration: to encourage and promote good hygiene and sanitation practices among young people both within and out of their village. 

Just over two years ago, the villagers of Checken had very poor hygiene and sanitation practises; a trait that is common in many rural villages across the Gambia. Garbage and flies dominated the environment and children got sick often. Handwashing was not frequently practised and under-five children excreted in compound surroundings, exacerbating the unhygienic condition of the village. Only a few compounds had a toilet, which the adults generally used, so many of the children use the backyard or nearby bush   behind the village to ease themselves.

“Sometimes, we got chased by dogs,” Isatou said. When she was about seven years-old, Isatou was chased by a dog while defecating with friends in the bushes and was badly hurt from a fall while running away. 

Sanitation coverage in the Gambia is low, estimated at 59 per cent (JMP, 2015 Updates). Jay and Isatou’s region is one of two regions where open defecation is practised the most (MICS, 2010).  

However, for the villagers of Checken, their hygiene practices began to improve about two years ago when the village was ‘triggered’ for the Community-led Total Sanitation (CLTS) programme, implemented by the Government and supported by UNICEF. The CLTS empowered the villagers to adopt best hygiene and sanitation practices such as abandoning open defecation, building improved latrines, keeping their environment clean and washing their hands with soap at critical times to minimize the incidence of diarrhoea, dysentery and other such diseases, especially among children under five.

The ‘triggering’, conducted by health workers, involved rigorous sensitization on good hygiene and sanitation practices, the development of a village-level abandonment action plan, and the construction of latrines by the villagers using local and affordable materials. 

girl advoacte
© UNICEF Gambia
Twelve-year-old Isatou Secka from Checken in The Gambia’s North Bank Region demonstrates proper handwashing with soap

Despite the ‘triggering’, some villagers, including children, were not using the toilet facilities they had built and when they did, they hardly washed their hands. “Most of the time, we just forgot because we were not used to doing these thing,” explained Isatou.  

Towards the end of 2014, with technical support from the Ministry of Health, about six dynamic, motivated and interested children, aged 12 to 18 years, were equipped with skills to become ‘ambassadors of hygiene promotion among young people’ in their village. Their role has since been to promote good practices like hand washing with soap and maintain the use of the latrines while keeping their environment clean.

“We have sessions with the other children once a week, and every last Saturday of the month, our supervisor, Amina, who is also the village natural leader, comes to give us new information so that we can educate the children,” said Jay. “We also share information with children in our respective schools.”

Both girls admitted that ever since they started these awareness creation sessions, hygiene and sanitation practices have improved not only among the children, but their parents as well. 

“Our parents felt embarrassed when we told them repeatedly to wash their hands with soap after cleaning little children who had gone to the toilet, so now they use soap,” said Jay, laughing.

Over the past months, the village of Checken has registered improved health among its occupants, thanks to their improved hygiene and sanitation practices. More apparent to Jay and Isatou is the reduction in diarrhoea cases among infants and under-fives where, before the ‘triggering’, there was at least a case a week.   

The village of Checken today proudly boasts of at least one properly maintained improved pit latrine per compound, equipped with clean water and soap, and is among the 170  certified open defecation free villages. As a result of the CLTS and other supporting interventions, 98 per cent of the Gambian population has abandoned open defecation (WHO, UNICEF JMP, 2015 Updates).

“We felt very proud when Checken was certified open defecation free in February 2015,” said Isatou. “Children in other villages were jealous and now they also try not to use the bushes.” 

“As the future of our nation, we the children need to make the change today so that our children will not suffer the same illnesses we did,” said Jay. “So, I would encourage other children to talk to their peers about how to improve their health and focus on their education for a better tomorrow.”  

 

 

 
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