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Sightsavers from the field

Meeting Kenya’s health heroes

Sightsavers’ Julie Jenner meets the teachers and students who are fighting disease and preventing blindness by teaching children about good hygiene.

May 2019
Peace, a student at Antuanduru Primary School, sings a song that helps her remember how to wash her hands and face

Meru county can be found slap-bang in the middle of Kenya, in the foothills of the imposing Mount Kenya.

It’s warm and it’s dry, and most of the 1.6 million population are farmers who rely on agricultural work for their income. It is not an area of great wealth.

I’m here to visit two schools that have launched health clubs to improve the wellbeing of their students. A debilitating eye disease called trachoma has been rife in the county as far back as anyone can remember, and the hope is that these health clubs can help tackle the problem.

School children sing songs under an acacia tree outside their school in Kenya.

Trachoma is the world’s leading infectious cause of blindness, and is part of a group of conditions known as neglected tropical diseases. The disease thrives where there are water shortages, poor sanitation and infestations of flies.

Trachoma starts off as a bacterial infection that’s a bit like conjunctivitis, and can be easily treated. But if it’s not, over time it causes scarring to the eyelid that makes the eyelashes turn inward, so with every blink they scrape against the eye.

The pain is so intense that many people resort to pulling out their eyelashes to reduce the agony of blinking. Over time, if it’s not treated, trachoma can lead to blindness.

Trachoma infections spread through contact with infected flies and via hands, clothes or bedding. The agony and disability of the disease can lead to a cycle of poverty, limiting many people’s access to health services, education and employment.

Now, thanks to concerted efforts of organisations such as Sightsavers working in partnership with the ministry of health, trachoma rates in Kenya have dropped significantly.

A teacher in Kenya points to a poster showing the word 'trachoma' as students watch.

This school health club meets every Thursday to teach children the importance of good hygiene to keep themselves healthy and free from illness. Each class has a health club representative, who relays to the class what he or she has learned. Students are, in turn, encouraged to pass on this knowledge to their family at home.

As well as learning how to keep their homes clean and use the toilet hygienically, the children are shown how to wash their hands and faces properly every day.

Sightsavers provided the school with four large murals that depict what trachoma is, how it is spread and how it can be prevented. They’re displayed near the main tap as a constant reminder.

Educational posters displayed at the school, featuring messages such as 'What is trachoma?'

The health club teacher, Amm, says: “I teach them and then we do it practically. We wash, clean the toilets, dig the compost pit, we keep the compound clean. Every morning they do this.

“Before we started the club, most of the time pupils were not coming to school. They had problems. There were flies everywhere. Some were complaining [of health issues].

“Since starting the club and realising washing their hands and faces is important, these problems are diminishing and they are healthy now. Even the classes are much better. When they are in the class, they enjoy learning. At break time they play nicely. Even when you look at them [you can see], they are healthy.”

Students wash their hands at school in Kenya.

Charles, aged 12, and Peace, 11, take part in the health club and proudly show off the special uniform they wear once a week that marks them out as health clubs members. Both children have known people who suffered with such advanced trachoma that they needed surgery to treat their inturned eyelashes and prevent them from going irreversibly blind.

Peace says: “I like to take care of the environment, to teach pupils to maintain high standards of hygiene and how to wash their faces. A clean face means healthy eyes. At home I tell my brothers to wash their faces and clean their hands.”

The club performs a catchy song about personal hygiene to the tune of ‘Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush’, with verses about washing hands, washing faces, brushing teeth and cleaning.

Peace sits at her desk in the classroom at school.

Charles is a smart, knowledgeable boy who wants to be an architect when he grows up so he can build a big house, like the White House. He lives with his grandparents and his teenage aunt in a simple dwelling close to the school. Until recently, their homestead didn’t have a tap: there is no running water to the home and the family must collect water from a neighbour.

I was really impressed when Charles showed off the improved pit latrine, and the “tippy tap” he made himself to provide running water. The tippy tap consists of an old water container suspended from wooden poles, attached to a stick on the floor using string. To make the water flow, you stand on the stick, which tugs the rope and tips the tap. Simple but effective.

Charles washes his face using the tippy tap at his home.

Charles’s great grandmother passed away last year, but while she was alive, she suffered for many years with the agony and discomfort of trachoma. Charles says: “My great grandmother’s eyes were paining and she couldn’t do anything around the house. She went to seek medical care.”

Thankfully she was able to have surgery on her eyelids to stop her eyelashes scratching against her eyes. “Her eyes were made healthy,” Charles explains. “She was able to fetch firewood again. When she was healthy, I was very happy – happy as a king!”

Charles’s grandmother, Lucy, is really proud of her grandson. And rightly so: he’s done a brilliant job of helping to keep his community clean and healthy.

”Charles started teaching us [about hygiene] last year,” Lucy explains. “Every day we wash our hands and faces. Before this, we had a basic pit latrine but no tap. Charles has shown us how to improvise to get running water.

“Charles has done really well. All the things he has learned at school, he’s come home and put into practice. I am very happy because of his work. Because of this, trachoma will reduce.”

Charles with his grandmother Lucy.

The End is in Sight is Sightsavers’ campaign to eliminate trachoma. We know where it is, and we know how to treat it. Now we need your help to banish it for good.

Just £20 could distribute sight-saving antibiotics to 133 children like Charles and Peace. Will you donate today and take us one step closer to eliminating trachoma?

Peace holds a sign saying 'You can help us wipe out trachoma for good.'