Every piece matters

Thanks to clean water, new latrines and lessons on hygiene, UNICEF and partners are ensuring displaced children in Mopti are safe from water-borne diseases

By Anne Kennedy
Portrait of Ada Diagayété, 12, a girl whose family was displaced due to increasing insecurity in central Mali. Official IDP camp of Socoura in the town of Sévaré, Mopti region, in central Mali, April 2019.
UNICEF Mali/2019/Dicko
30 April 2019

11-year-old Ada Diagayété is not used to being the center of attention. But after seeing others being applauded, she volunteers to help out with the next puzzle: What is the correct way to wash your hands?

12-year-old Ada Diagayété demonstrates handwashing during a hygiene promotion session provided by UNICEF partner NGO  IMADEL.
UNICEF Mali/2019/Dicko

It is not a question all children would know the answer to. Ada and her friend step forward. Ada washes her hands without soap and her friend with soap. Taking the resulting two buckets, the instructor, Fatoumata Barry, shows each of the dozens of curious women packed into the tent the difference between the resulting water. Ada had washed her fingers and between her fingers, in her palms, even her wrists. But she forgot the soap. Ada washes her hands again, with Fatoumata pouring the water, this time with soap.


As she sits back down, the tent, already packed with amused women, intrigued children and confused babies, fills further with congratulatory claps and jokes.


The hygiene class is being held in the stadium of Sévaré, an official site for internally displaced people in Mali’s central region of Mopti. The site was set up in April 2019 to cater to the influx of displaced families affected by increasing insecurity and violence in the region. Today, families live in rows of tents along its edges.


One tent is set aside: a separate space, used in rotation as a temporary learning center, a child friendly space or a gathering place. It is here that Fatoumata is teaching Ada and others how to protect themselves against germs and diseases such as diarrhea. With its punchlines, jokes and trick questions, the class is less of a lecture and more akin to a magic show.


A woman volunteers to solve a different puzzle. She is given three pictures and asked to place them in order of bad, average or good. Nervous, her hands begin to shake, but she places the pictures in a row at her feet: good is the picture showing the woman using soap and water to clean her hands, average is the woman just using water, bad is the woman who doesn’t wash her hands at all, because not washing makes you sick.

Gabdo Diagayété places images in a line from best option to worst option during a hygiene promotion session led by UNICEF partner IMADEL.
UNICEF Mali/2019/Dicko

By the end everyone is an expert: “You should wash your hands when…? Before eating! After leaving the latrine! Before preparing food! Before serving food!”

“I love this work. People say, ‘you have helped us understand. You have helped us a lot.’”

Fatoumata loves her work, especially since she sees the direct impact of her sessions. “People say, ‘you have helped us understand. You have helped us a lot.’”

Her commitment to promoting good hygiene isn’t new: she already worked for over four years in villages in Mali, guiding hygiene behaviors. “I started before the crisis,” she says. “But now the insecurity is part of it. There are attacks sometimes on the road and in the villages.” She now works for IMADEL, a partner who has been key to UNICEF’s response to the unfolding humanitarian crisis in central Mali.

“Each part of our response is vital in not only the recovery of the people but to assist in long term recovery.”

Fatoumata knows promoting hygiene is part of a much broader response to the increasing humanitarian needs here. Several different social mobilizers frequent the camp, trained in psychosocial support for children, and the promotion of social cohesion. “There is someone who comes and teaches women how to cook, another who shows films on peace and social cohesion, another who plays with the children so they can forget what they have seen.”

The different layers of response are part of an integrated package which caters to the various needs of families here. Ada’s mother Aminata says that she was relieved to find so many different types of help at the stadium. “Since we have arrived here, we have been welcomed, lodged, and fed. We have anxieties, but when we arrived here, we had nothing and now we have begun to live.”

Ada Diagayété, 12 years old, washes her hands with soap using techniques learned during a hygiene promotion session led by UNICEF partner IMADEL in the displacement site of Socoura.
UNICEF Mali/2019/Dicko

Ada’s family, who fled their home village when it became too unsafe, is among the 300 displaced people currently living at the stadium. Across the region of Mopti, 70,000 people are now displaced.

Before the crisis, the stadium where Ada’s family now lives was a simple flat field with goal posts and had only two toilets and showers. Today, thanks to the support of UNICEF and partners, the stadium offers vital integrated services to the people living there. There are six showers, sixteen latrines, six taps, water deliveries, two washing areas for cooking and laundry as well as a rubbish pit are operational.

But infrastructure needs to come with hygiene promotion: diarrhea, which is already one of the main killers of children in Mali, becomes an even greater threat when people live together in small perimeters, as do other water-borne illnesses.

In this context, Fatoumata’s role is one of the most important health tools available. By being alerted to ways in which children may become ill, families can adopt different hygiene behaviors and protect themselves, greatly reducing the outbreak of water-borne diseases. Through pictures, interaction and repetition, Fatoumata teaches families about the origin of water-borne diseases, and key methods to prevent them: using soap, washing hands their hands at key moments, and preventing flies from settling on food. UNICEF-provided hygiene kits ensure basic items like soap and jerrycans are available to support the practices.

“To help people, the first thing is to accommodate them,” explains Fatoumata. “UNICEF brought the tents here. And if you lodge them, you have to feed them and there have to be toilets. If not, the environment can get bad and there will always be sicknesses. So UNICEF helped people with good hygiene practices and gave hygiene kits, explaining how to use them.”

UNICEF is able to provide this type of immediate and comprehensive support in emergencies thanks to the availability of funds such as the Global Humanitarian Thematic Funds (GHT). In Mali, Sweden and Denmark provide critically needed funds for emergency water, sanitation, and hygiene interventions through the GHT funds.

The hygiene tips do not stay in the tent. Ada’s family see Fatoumata every day as she visits the families and answers their questions.

The secret to her success lies in persistence and delivery. Ada had heard some of it before, but didn’t do it. “I didn’t know it was important,” she admits. Having become Fatoumata’s pupil, she now realizes that families can fall ill due to poor hygiene. Better still, all the tips Fatoumata gives are “very simple.”

NGO worker Fatoumata Barry from UNICEF partner IMADEL, shows Ada Diagayété, 12, and her family puzzles on good hygiene practices outside their tent in the official displacement site of Socoura.
UNICEF Mali/2019/Dicko

The learning goes two ways. Fatoumata says that when she started, she wanted people to listen. “But now, I have learned to listen and try to understand. And there is so much I learn from them.”

Back in their families’ tent, Ada has another question and Fatoumata re-opens her box of tricks.