A Better Bed-Net Strategy

In Nganyahun village, a Red Cross volunteer and a community leader who work with GMin teach residents how to put up bed nets.
The GMin crew departs Sahn Malen for a village where they will distribute bed nets. From L to R: Clement Wright ’09, Justin Grinstead ’10, Sam Slaughter ’09, Jacob Segal ’09, David Sengeh ’10, Red Cross volunteer Anthony Lebbie, and Sengeh’s cousin Anthony Sengeh.
Using notes to bolster his command of Mende, the local language, Sam Slaughter ’09 introduces himself and the GMin team to villagers.
On the way to Nganyahun village, the volunteers tread a delicate path. GMin drove to the larger villages to drop off nets for storage until they could distribute them (carrying them from house to house in bails on their heads).
David Sengeh (under net) acts out his part in a skit on malaria, as two Red Cross volunteers hold the net. The skit was narrated in Mende by Red Cross volunteers.
The malaria skit’s dramatic ending: after a brush with the insecticide-treated net, the “mosquitoes” writhe around and die. The people who don’t sleep under the net also keel over; the only survivor is Sengeh, who in the skit’s last moments wakes up healthy.
A young (and proud) recipient of a GMin mosquito net
Members of the GMin team. From left: Sam Slaughter ’09, David Sengeh ’10, Clement Wright ’09, and Justin Grinstead ’10.
A home in one of the villages where GMin distributed nets. The organization gave out enough nets to cover all sleeping spaces, not just those used by children.
Having finished distributing nets for the day, the GMin team relaxes on a boat ride. The riders, from left to right: Clement Wright ’09; GMin cofounder Mathias Esmann, who attended an international high school in Norway with Sengeh and now attends Princeton; Jamie Appleseed, another GMin cofounder who is now the organization’s executive director; Sam Slaughter ’09; David Sengeh ’10; and Red Cross volunteer Jacob Sandy, the boat’s owner.

Students in Africa

Read about more student projects in Africa in a special online supplement to Harvard Magazine's November-December 2009 cover article

David Sengeh ’10 has decided that the most important asset in development work is not experience. Nor is it training in economics, public administration, or medicine. What’s most important for development workers, he says, is humility.

Sengeh spent last summer in his native Sierra Leone, distributing bed nets to prevent malaria, a drain on adult productivity and economic growth as well as on children’s educational achievement. Through GMin, an NGO Sengeh and a high-school friend founded in 2006, he and 10 other young men—four Harvard students or recent graduates among them—distributed 4,000 nets to more than 1,000 households, nearly 9,000 people in all. During the course of the summer, Sengeh estimates that each of them walked 120 miles.

Their results thus far are heartening: a follow-up study of the households that received nets in 2007 found that 93 percent were using them, compared to rates below 50 percent for distribution campaigns by major humanitarian organizations. (Before-and-after numbers for malaria prevalence aren’t yet available.)

How did college students operating on a shoestring—GMin has spent less than $40,000 to date, raised almost entirely through charitable contributions from individuals—figure out how to improve on the models of those with far more experience and deeper pockets? Sengeh believes that those organizations failed to recognize that their strategies weren’t working. Following a UNICEF edict that pregnant women and children under the age of 5 were the most vulnerable groups, programs distributed only enough bed nets for those constituencies, meaning a household of 10 might get just one or two nets.

But in Sierra Leone, respect comes with age, so the best food and nicest sleeping spaces are reserved for adults. The nets were designed to go over beds, but children typically sleep on mats on the floor—meaning the nets were being used to protect parents instead. Sengeh says he heard relief-organization workers berate Sierra Leoneans for relegating their children to the floor. But cultural factors are difficult to change, so GMin’s approach skirted the issue by distributing bed nets to cover every sleeping space in each household, even if that meant reaching fewer households in all.

Sengeh, a biomedical sciences and engineering concentrator in Currier House, is glad to have taken courses that informed his startup projects, which also include distributing and testing microbial fuel cells in South Africa and Namibia, and an advisory role in the Sierra Leone youth center on which Elizabeth Nowak worked. (Sengeh took the Idea Translation course, and considers David Edwards a pivotal mentor.) But he says his work on the ground has been just as pivotal as any classroom experience: “I don’t consider it an extracurricular. It’s a class that’s situated in the world… If you want to learn about global health challenges, you go into the field and do it.”


Read the GMin blog
Read Sengeh’s blog from 2007, when he began the bed-net project

Read more articles by: Elizabeth Gudrais

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