How one net can save a life

How one net can save a life

Towering over everyone else in the room, and with his great, grey beard evoking mental images of the Moses of Biblical times, it’s honestly impossible to miss Africa’s intrepid modern-day explorer, Kingsley Holgate, anywhere — least of all, in the rapidly-filling dining hall of a Nando’s restaurant in Dubai.

By Karen Ann Monsy

Published: Fri 24 Jun 2011, 11:27 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 7:38 AM

But while he may not cut an easily recognisable figure in the UAE, Kingsley’s is both a face and a name that many back home in the African bush are likely to never forget.

A member of the Royal Geographical Society, Kingsley has been using his adventures over the last several years to improve and save the lives of millions of countrymen in need. Together with his wife, Gill (whose Zulu name is Mashozi, meaning ‘she who wears the shorts’) and his son, Ross, the Holgate family is currently involved in at least three major campaigns but the most urgent, Kingsley points out, is the fight against malaria.

The stats are shocking, the ground realities — even more so. “Every minute, approximately two babies die from the bloodsucking bite of the anopheles mosquito,” Kingsley informs, gravely. With malaria the No. 1 killer of African children, the arrival of the Holgate team in a village as part of the ‘One Net, One Life’ campaign could actually mean all the difference between life and death.

The programme distributes thousands of insecticide-treated mosquito nets to pregnant mums and infants under the age of five — because quite literally, that’s all it takes to save a life. In fact, Kingsley clarifies, “Our research indicates that the average mum shares a net with 2-3 infants. So every net actually saves 2-3 lives. It’s so simple and so obvious, and it kills us to get to a village and see so many unnecessary deaths for the sake of some education.”

Describing a typical day during such an expedition, Kingsley says, “We’d get to a village, generally late in the afternoon and meet the chief and his dignitaries. We’d then set up camp in the village, light a fire, invite the chief and his family and all eat from the same pot. During the course of the evening, the chief and his advisors would draw up a list giving us the names of the pregnant mums and mums with children under the age of five, which would be our target group. The next morning, whilst we’re still packing up camp and the kettle’s on the fire, all the mums of the district would arrive, each with a sitting mat under their arms. The Land Rovers have a speaker system and using a local interpreter, we’d have a fun local event with Q&A sessions, a bit of theatre, music competitions etc.”

It’s not just about dumping bales of mosquito nets in Africa, Kingsley explains. “Sometimes people feel to be seen to do it is enough. But this is more a case of shaking hands with a mum, actually placing a mosquito net in her hands and the education that follows, which is absolutely imperative. We take GPS coordinates of every net ever given. Also, within the group you always find a mama who’s a real character! She then becomes a malaria ambassador and where possible, we stay in touch. The average mosquito net lasts about 3-4 years so we always try to ensure a follow-up expedition goes back to that village in 3-4 years’ time.”

It’s not a very conventional approach — using adventure to save lives — but the South African humanitarian makes a fair point when he argues, “You can only talk so many times about a mother receiving a mosquito net,” says Kingsley, “but you can add to that flavour by talking about world-first expeditions.” One of their recent such expeditions was the Africa Outside Edge Expedition, during which they trekked the entire outline of Africa. It took the team 449 days to cover 33 countries. “Ironically,” he says, “the danger during any of these expeditions does not come from wild animals, as one would suspect. It tends to come from people in war zones. We just had one of our most dangerous experiences ever a few months ago in the Central African Republic in rebel territory, when I was taken by the rebels to meet the rebel commander; we’re just really lucky to be alive.”

Next on the charts for Kingsley is a journey to Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan, for another Fight Malaria campaign supported by Nando’s. With things heating up again and predictions of another war in the South, Kingsley expects there will be some interesting, even dangerous, challenges ahead but is determined to plough on if the end result means curbing malaria in what may soon become “the newest country on the planet.”

It’s that determination, that single-mindedness for the welfare of his people all over again that makes you realise: they don’t call him the Grey Beard of Africa for nothing.

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