Each year, World Malaria Day (April 25) commemorates the global fight toward zero malaria deaths and mobilizes action to combat malaria. This year’s theme is “Invest in the Future: Defeat Malaria.”
Anglican Bishop Dinis Sengulane’s message isn’t exactly what one might expect from a typical religious leader. Then again, Bishop Sengulane, who has presided over Mozambique’s Lebombo Diocese since 1976, is not a typical leader, religious or otherwise. The large cross that hangs from a chain around his neck is fashioned from components of disassembled weapons surrendered by combatants after the Mozambique civil war, a prolonged conflict that he and other religious leaders played an integral role in bringing to an end in the mid-1990s.
Today, Bishop Sengulane is fighting to bring an end to another destructive force in his nation: Malaria. The disease steals 650,000 lives around the world each year, devastating entire communities and undermining opportunities for prosperity and growth — and disproportionately affecting the African continent.
At a gathering hosted by USAID last month in Washington, DC Bishop Sengulane was joined by Rear Admiral Tim Ziemer of the President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI), leadership from USAID’s Global Health Bureau and representatives from a number of faith-based and community organizations, including Christian and Muslim groups. The Bishop’s message was simple and clear: “[Mozambique] reached peace 20 years ago. But 10 years ago we said there is something else that is killing day and night. Its name is Malaria. Let’s stop it. Let’s start working on that as communities of faith because we know this is not God’s will.”
In 2006 the Bishop helped launch a nationwide campaign to end malaria called PIRCOM (Programa Inter Religioso Contra a Malaria) alongside leaders from Christian, Muslim and Baha’i faith backgrounds. Their ambitious goal: train thousands of religious leaders across the country with basic malariaprevention and control messages, equipping them with the resources and tools needed to bring these messages to their communities.
To date PIRCOM has trained over 27,000 religious leaders and reached nearly 2 million congregants with basic malaria education, made possible through funding from the President’s Malaria Initiative. The PIRCOM network now extends to 36 district councils and six provincial councils across Mozambique where efforts are coordinated. Reflecting on the unique role faith communities can play in saving lives through simple public awareness raising, Bishop Sengulane observed: “If a doctor talks about how important it is for you to have your home sprayed, of course he will talk about those things in those terms, because it is how he will get his salary. But when a leader of a mosque starts talking about health issues, about malaria, then people are ready to listen. [Religious leaders] have got a good audience.”
Echoing this theme, Rear Admiral Tim Ziemer added, “No matter what the cause, if you don’t have political, or community, or civil leadership behind, it isn’t going to go anywhere… these leaders represent a ‘flag pole’ for the cause.”
Still, there is much work to be done, especially in preventing deaths of children under five. Concluding his remarks, the Bishop acknowledged, “At the present moment we continue to have too many children dying of malaria. It’s very important that we ensure that with the under-fives, pregnant women and similar vulnerable groups, that we go back and do the very urgent work of providing them with whatever is needed so that malaria doesn’t kill, as we see happening too often.”
PIRCOM’s example reminds us that effective global development not only requires sound public policy and results-oriented programming, it is also a fundamental expression of our values, both as individuals and as a nation.
On this, World Malaria Day, let’s resolve to be noisy about malaria.