Washing hands improves schooling in Mwandama Millennium Village / by Natalia Mroz

Published in: Columbia University | Columbia Global Centers

As part of the Global Handwashing Day celebrated across the world last week, Mwandama’s schools joined together to sing, dance and have fun in the name of better health.

During the event, more than 600 children in brightly colored uniforms pledged to wash their hands with soap and water – the simplest and most inexpensive way to prevent diarrheal diseases which, sadly, causes the death of almost two million of children every year, the disproportionate percent in rural Africa. When asked, children as young as six were able to tell me the five key moments when washing hands is crucial, and jostled each other to demonstrate the proper technique for using soap and clean water to get rid of life-threatening bacteria.

The Millennium Villages Project (MVP) has been working to improve sanitation in schools across Africa since 2005. This effort was given a boost last year thanks to a partnership with Unilever, which will see the implementation of Unilever’s proven hand washing program in ten countries – Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania and Uganda.

“Sanitation means dignity,” says Berlings Banda, Mwandama MVPs WASH facilitator, “it shows your status in society. The signing of the pledge by Unilever representatives, Mwandama’s school community and the Millennium Villages Project, represents a new commitment to ensuring every child lives past their fifth birthday.”

In Mwandama, improved sanitation infrastructure as well as a better understanding amongst the community about good hygiene practices is already making a big impact. Improved, gender-specific latrines have been constructed in schools, putting a stop to open defecation, and reducing instances of illness and the dangers of leaving the school grounds. Children are also increasingly taking good sanitation lessons home, thereby spreading the benefits to the entire community.

Cristos Ntota, the head teacher of Dindi Primary School, which hosted the Global Hand Washing Day celebrations, also pointed out the correlation he has witnessed between improved sanitation and improving education standards in Mwandama:

“With no sanitation, the children will be suffering, they will be going to hospital and not coming to school. The whole country can be affected. But sanitation is the beginning of development, the whole area will be going forward, and future employment and the entire country will be improved.

In the past, he says,

“Children, and especially girls, were missing schools because they were ashamed to use poor latrines. They were getting sick more often.  This has changed thanks to the new facilities installed by the Millennium Villages Project.”

The next step in Mwandama’s sanitation has to be the provision of clean water to Dindi school. According to Banda, plans are now being implemented to upgrade the shallow well currently in use to a hybrid water system powered by solar which pumps water direct to the school.

“We have provided eight schools with rain water harvesting facilities and eight more are being installed in the remaining schools; 16 handwashing stations have been set up, and 16 more are currently being built; four boreholes will be drilled; and we will be providing each school with water treatment chemicalsfor point of use treatment (chlorination) which will meet the Malawi Bureau of Standards requirements for human water consumption; we are mainstreaming menstrual hygiene management (MHM) in all our schools and are constructing latrines with inbuilt hand washing facilities for girls. Water and sanitation go hand in hand,” he says.

Berlings is also excited about the progress on sanitation made by the village of Chief Nelson, located within the Mwandama cluster and numbering 109 people. Sanitation platforms (SanPlats) dry in the sun ready for installation in the latrines of each of the 28 households, the initial funding for which was provided by the MVP, with the village providing labor and some materials. Already, every house has a handwashing facility, and a water pump delivers clean water to the center of the village.

“I am most proud of the fact that our children are not getting diarrhea and the frequency of other diseases like malaria is also reduced,” says Chief Nelson smiling.

“What makes this village special,” according to Banda, “is that hand washing and sanitation are being instilled as part and parcel of every day hygiene. Other villages in Mwandama are already following this example.”