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Soap to heal a community

September 24, 2019

When you were a kid, how many times did you hear, “Go wash your hands,”? Did you ever say, “They aren’t dirty,” only to get a lecture on germs?  You probably ended up in the bathroom with hot water, soap and a clean towel, and you probably resented being forced to wash, but I doubt you thought of hot water, soap and towels as luxuries.  I also doubt that you ever thought of soap as medicine, but in Suki and Akaki Kality soap can literally be a life saver.

Rainy season is in full swing here and in most ways it is welcome.  It fills the dams that produce electricity, ensures the crops will grow and even helps make the air cleaner and fresher.  But it sometimes brings disease. Cholera often flairs up and that has happened this year. Because the government knows we care about our communities, they come and ask if we can help when problems like this happen.  The most common request is for water treatment tablets that can be distributed to the most vulnerable families and we have provided tablets this year and several times in the past. We like doing this. It saves lives and builds our partnership with the local government.

This year it also provided an opportunity to try something I have been thinking about; giving away soap.  Stopping a disease like cholera or just preventing health problems caused by dirty water and lack of sanitation is complex and challenging.  I came across a research project done by a doctor in Pakistan several years ago when he distributed soap and hand washing instructions in a slum community with severe health issues caused by poor sanitation.  The impact was dramatic, and I thought, “This is something I want to try.”

Our leadership team discussed if this was worth trying and the best way to do it.  They really took hold of this and within a couple of days had it organized. They shopped for the best soap at the best price and then found a flyer in Amharic with pictures explaining how to properly wash hands and prevent cholera.

The big challenge was figuring out how to get soap and flyers to almost 600 families.  We wanted to give instructions on using the soap and find out if anyone in the family was already sick.  It also seemed like a good time to make home visits to every family to check on their general situation and make sure that we had current locations for where everyone lives.

I had another idea to help implement soap distribution and education.  I wanted to use a cell phone app, What3Words, to geolocate every house.  This way we could map all our beneficiaries’ homes and make it easier to reach them. We decided to use our Family Advocates to do all this.  

Earlier this year we hired eight Family Advocates.  They are our front-line workers. The ones who are out in the community every day, checking on people and making sure that no one falls through the cracks.  They have been wonderful and dramatically improved our ministry both in terms of caring for families’ physical needs and making a spiritual impact.

Danny, who is in charge of all technology, got the app loaded on the Family Advocates’ phones, Alemu and the medical team trained them on teaching the families about hand washing, we ordered the soap and sent them out.  

It’s too soon to know the impact this will have, but we are getting some early positive feedback.  I have been surprised at how enthusiastic the staff have been and their readiness to set aside other jobs to do this.

We will do our best to keep you posted as we get more feedback on how this works, and if it is something that really seems to work then we will probably expand.  It could have big health benefits for very low cost.

— Andy Warren, Founder & Executive Director