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October 14, 2014

Washing Hands, Saving Lives

Washing hands and brushing teeth has never been such fun.

When a team of Japanese health volunteers visited the Nyakabuye primary school in central Rwanda virtually the entire student population of more than 900 six to 15 year olds turned out.

As the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers (JOCVs) used pictures, hand-crafted posters, a magic light box, a giant “mouth” and basic soap, water and toothbrushes to emphasize their message, a roomful of students watched with rapt attention. Other students crowded around outside windows and in the dusty school courtyard, equally absorbed and delighted.

photoJOCVs demonstrate teeth brushing and showing the bacteria left in the palms.

The volunteers immediate message was simple: washing your hands correctly, brushing your teeth regularly and using simple oral rehydration sachets when necessary can improve your health.

Long term aims are much more ambitious.

Their visit to Nyakabuye school came on the eve of Global Handwashing Day, Oct. 15, in which the entire international community focuses on the potential impact of this one simple health procedure.

As many as 1.7 million children die annually from diarrhea and pneumonia in sub-Saharan Africa and African countries such as Rwanda are particularly vulnerable. Health officials estimate the risk of diarrhea can be reduced by between 30 and 50 percent by regular handwashing alone.

photoPupils happily show their clean palms.

The Nyakabuye students were attending their first health class, orchestrated by 26-year-old volunteer Taukumi Mito, who has been at the school for nine months, and five other volunteers who work in different parts of Rwanda.

“Youth is the future of our country,” headmistress Olive Bazubagira said as she watched the volunteers lecture and teach the students correct techniques for washing and brushing. Starting with children as young as six, she said, authorities want to “develop a whole new mindset in the entire population which will take handwashing and teeth brushing very seriously.”

The recent lecture was part of a broader JICA strategy in the water and sanitation field in Rwanda. Since 2007, the agency has helped the country develop its overall water infrastructure. Ongoing technical assistance ensures sustainable development and the maintenance of water and sanitation facilities. JOCVs offer small-scale support to local communities such as supporting the operation of water management comittees and promoting awareness towards hygiene together with community health workers. Japan has also taken a leading role in sector coordination between government and other Rwandan organizations and international participants.


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