Mathare schools host debate session to engage students on sanitation

In the majority of primary schools here in Nairobi, students spend Friday afternoons participating in extracurricular activities such as soccer, basketball, and swimming.

For Pilot, Alliant, Upendo, and Viara schools in Mathare, teachers also set aside at least one Friday on a bi-monthly basis during which pupils ages 11 to 13 participate in inter-school debate sessions on sanitation themes. This month, Pilot School hosted one on the topic: ‘HIV is more dangerous than cholera.’

“Our goal in selecting this motion was to help our students understand that cholera is also a deadly disease just like HIV is,” said teacher Fredrick Oluoch of Pilot School, adding that all teachers within the three schools took part in selecting the topic.

Teacher Steve Kaguta of Upendo School gave his reasoning for supporting the topic, saying, “Just as most students know how to protect themselves from HIV, through this session we want them to learn how to protect themselves from cholera.”

These debates are part of our WASH in Schools program, in which Sanergy is partnering with WASH United to promote access to hygiene in schools and behavior change communication (BCC) in Kenya. The program, which includes Fresh Life Toilets in many of the schools, incorporates WASH United methodology to promote hygiene interventions in Nairobi’s informal settlements.

“Through the introduction of debate activities in schools, we anticipate that students will learn and internalize various hygiene concepts such as the importance of hand washing and using a toilet correctly at all times,” Rose Nyawira, in charge of the School WASH program, says.

Sanergy was invited to attend the event so that we could share the students’ ideas and insights:

At 2pm, Pilot School teacher Sammy Kiweno, who facilitates the debates, assembled participants in Pilot School’s entertainment hall.

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He introduced the day’s debate motion and gave a brief description of cholera and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). “Cholera is an infectious bacterial disease of the small intestine, typically contracted from infected water supplies and causing severe vomiting and diarrhea. HIV, on the other hand, is a virus spread through bodily fluids that affects specific cells of the immune system, called CD4 cells or T cells,” he said.

The students participating in the debate had already studied both cholera and HIV as part of their school curriculum and in the schools’ health clubs, so they were already familiar with the more technical aspects of the diseases and prepared to debate their relative dangers.

It was now time for students to agree or disagree with the motion presented.

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“HIV is more dangerous than cholera as it cannot be cured. Also, one ends up losing many friends through stigmatization. The results of stigmatization are also fatal, as they lead to cases of suicide. I therefore support the motion that ‘HIV is more dangerous than cholera,’” said James of Alliant School.

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“I disagree that HIV is more dangerous than cholera. Cholera is highly contagious and can kill many people within hours as opposed to HIV. For example, if you return from the toilet, and you did not wash your hands and happen to carry the cholera bacteria, you are likely to spread the disease to many people through shaking hands and touching surfaces that others after you will also touch,” said Jackson Mutiso of Pilot Academy.

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According to Sammy Sagala of Upendo School, cholera is more dangerous than HIV. Its potential to infect an entire population is high. Sammy’s basis for this statement was that once people drink untreated water or eat contaminated fruit, they are exposed to the bacteria ‘Vibrio cholerae’.

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Edna Ochieng’ argued that HIV is more dangerous than cholera because, while one could have some level of immunity against cholera, it is impossible to prevent oneself from opportunistic diseases such as the flu when one has HIV. In addition, HIV not only affects the infected persons but also their immediate families who face stigmatization by their communities.

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Louis (left) from Alliant School and Ibrahim (right) from Viara School seemed not to agree on whether one can contract cholera by being around someone who has it. Ibrahim argued that one can only contract it if the surrounding environment was not well cleaned and if the water consumed was not treated. Louis, on the other hand, believed that humans were carriers of the cholera bacteria and could therefore infect others even through simple actions such as shaking hands.

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As part of the ongoing hygiene and sanitation training teachers receive from Fresh Life’s School WASH program team, teacher Rosaline Aluda of Viara School was well equipped to clarify this issue for students. “One cannot contract cholera by staying around an infected person. However, one needs to be careful about maintaining high hygiene standards such as thorough cleaning of dishes and hands before eating and after visiting the toilet,” she said, adding that those infected with HIV were more prone to contracting cholera due to their compromised immune system.

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Rose reiterated Ms. Aluda’s points and further reminded the students of the five Fs for contracting cholera: Feces, Fluids, Fingers, Food, and Fruit. “Remember: these are the main ways through which we contract cholera. Remember to wash hands – especially after using the loo – and drink boiled water at all times,” she said. Rose was proud to witness great information exchange on sanitation among students and teachers. “When you see students debate some of the concepts they are taught versus what they see out in their communities, it means they are learning and this is an opportunity to demystify any myths about sanitation to ensure children have accurate information, “she said.

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This session wouldn’t be complete without Pilot School’s co-director teacher Fredrick’s parting words. “Thank you, fellow teachers, for making this event possible for our students; it has been a success. Thank you, Fresh Life team, for supporting and teaching us about how to improve sanitation in our schools and homes,” he said.

This was the second debate session the schools had organized since their training on hygiene promotion with the Fresh Life team. The sessions had been fruitful not just as information sharing platforms but also as networking opportunities for teachers and students.

As the debate session came to a close, all students by a show of hands pledged to share lessons learnt about cholera and HIV with their friends at school and home.

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