Senegal: Red Cross saving lives through the airwaves

Published: 15 September 2016 22:09 CET

By Jean-Matthew Tamba, IFRC, Dakar

In Senegal, radio is the most accessible means of information for the majority of population, especially in the remote and rural areas.

Volunteers of the Senegalese Red Cross use radio programmes to help prevent people from getting malaria, cholera and diarrhoeal disease which are very common and prevalent in the country. The Red Cross share useful, relevant and life-saving information through community radio programmes. Listeners can also call-in to ask questions or air their concerns.

In Ziguinchor for example, a city in southern Casamance, along the borders with Gambia and Guinea Bissau, Red Cross volunteers use radio programmes to persuade women to change their age-old tradition of getting rid of  ‘evil spirits’ using unsafe water.

19.9 per cent of child mortality in Senegal is caused by diarrhoeal disease - the second leading cause of child mortality in children in the country according to the health ministry. 14.8 per cent of those deaths are in Zinguichor alone.

According to Khady Ndiaye, a resident in Zinguinchor, the majority of the women there believe that babies get diarrhoea because of evil spirits. Sometimes, the cloth that nursing mothers use to tie their infants to their backs would catch fire. It is believed that the smoke from the burnt cloth carries evil spirits that would cause diarrhoea.

Once an incident is reported, all the nursing mothers in the village will gather with their babies at the house where the incident took place. The head woman would then submerge the remainder of the burnt cloth in water, rinse it without soap and feed the water to all of the babies. The water is also used to wash the babies, “to purify them from the evil spirit”.

“Mothers in the community also wash their babies with water that has been used to prepare food and wash hands. Furthermore, they will carry their infants early each morning to a nearby stream to bathe with their infants, also to purify their infants and themselves,” explained  Khady.

Lately, this practice of using unsafe water has declined with the presence of the Senegalese Red Cross Society volunteers visiting communities and sharing information about water-borne disease and cholera at the markets, as well as through radio programmes in the local language.  There has also been an increase in the number of women taking their children to the local hospital or health units for medical check-up and treatment. 

Dr Elhaj Malick Diop, a military doctor and regional medical officer in Ziguinchor, attributed the change to the information sharing activities carried out by the Red Cross volunteers.

Just three years ago,  when the Ebola epidemic erupted in West Africa, the Senegalese Red Cross Society had only one person who could run a radio programme.  Today,  the organization has at least 250 volunteers and staff trained to carry out community engagement activities and produce radio shows that provide information, increase awareness and help address people’s concerns. The training is part of the European Union supported initiative, ‘West Africa Preparedness Project for Ebola and other Epidemic Diseases: Beneficiary Communication and Social Mobilization, Response and Prevention’, launched by the Senegalese Red Cross.

Trained volunteers are sent  to 10 out of the 14 regions in the country with the aim of reaching at least 60per cent of the 2,000,000 targeted population by October 2016.