Beatrice Gbanga is a United Methodist missionary with the General Board of Global Ministries, of which UMCOR is a part, serving the Sierra Leone Annual Conference as health board coordinator. Photo: Judith Santiago.
By Julia Kayser Frisbie*
July 31, 2014—Beatrice Gbanaga remembers her 1984 trip to Jamkhed, India, as if it were yesterday. Her education as a midwife and a registered nurse had already taken her to South Africa, England and Nigeria. She’d worked for the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health, been a professional educator for nurses, and had just started a new job coordinating the Sierra Leone Annual (regional) Conference’s medical programs. But going to Jamkhed, she says, changed the way she thought about health. It was the trip that made her into a teacher.
Jamkhed’s Comprehensive Rural Health Project pioneered a community-based approach to healthcare. There, Gbanga witnessed people with no formal education identifying and treating illness for their neighbors and improving the nutrition in their villages. It was an “Ah ha” moment. “People who had not been to school could actually promote health in their communities,” says Gbanga. “That really, really touched me.”
Sierra Leone has only one doctor for every 50,000 citizens, according to 2010 World Health Organization estimates. (By comparison, the United States has about one doctor for every 375 citizens.) Most communities don’t have a healthcare professional. So the need for community-based healthcare—neighbors supporting each other with basic first aid and disease prevention—is tremendous.
Gbanga returned to Sierra Leone with this new vision and started training everyone who would listen. No one was disqualified by inexperience. And gradually, things began to change.
The fruits of Gbanga’s labor were obvious in 2010 during Imagine No Malaria’s first bed net distribution. She was part of the team that supervised and coordinated several thousand volunteers who went door-to-door throughout Bo District, hanging up a total of 300,000 bed nets. Gbanga’s favorite part was finding and training those volunteers. “These women—these health volunteers—were an integral part of that distribution,” she says. “We could not have done it without them.”
Malaria is rampant in Sierra Leone, but so is misinformation about the disease. Health volunteers need to be well versed in its cause, symptoms and treatment. They share this knowledge every time they hang up a net. And it makes a huge difference. The 2010 bed net distribution in Sierra Leone was one of the most effective in the world, and it catapulted The United Methodist Church into international recognition.
As for Gbanga, her work didn’t stop there. She now serves as the health board coordinator for the Sierra Leone Annual Conference. Her job is to supervise all of the health activities by the United Methodist Church in Sierra Leone, including Imagine No Malaria, HIV/AIDS prevention and three major United Methodist hospitals. She’s also the point person for new projects. “I have the responsibility of not only communicating with donors,” she says, “but also informing our annual conference of the activities of the health board.” It’s a huge job. “Sometimes it can be a challenge,” Gbanga admits. But then she adds wryly: “Nothing gained without the challenge.”
Last month, Gbanga’s team supervised another distribution, this time of 700,000 insecticide-treated bed nets. Again, their emphasis on public awareness paid off. Thousands of health volunteers blanketed their neighborhoods with new nets and up-to-date information. And again, Gbanga’s favorite part was training the volunteers. “As long as I can get the best out of someone and help them develop their potential,” she says, “it gives me joy.”
Health board coordinators like Gbanga are unsung heroes, working behind the scenes to implement programs like Imagine No Malaria. But she’s not in it for the glory. “If you ask me why I do this, I say: I believe in community. I come from a community. We’re a community. And I know that… people have power if they have the right information.” She smiles. “They can take action.”
The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has trained members of 13 United Methodist health boards in 16 countries in sub-Saharan Africa as part of Imagine No Malaria. Your gift to Global Health, Advance #3021770, supports this valuable work.
*Julia Kayser Frisbie is a writer and a regular contributor to www.umcor.org.