Aid workers teach Sierra Leone's poor to shun witch doctors' malaria remedies

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The Independent Online

They don't look like witches, whatever witches are supposed to look like. They are often old, shrivelled, hardy farm workers who toil with the rest of the villagers, bent over in the searing heat of the sun. Sometimes they are young and bounding, in trainers and bright, funky shirts, displaying their wares with the eager eyes of an entrepreneur. And, in any case, many of these witch doctors have a point.

The treasures hidden deep in the jungles of Sierra Leone are powerful. Potions cooked up from bits of bark in bubbling vats genuinely have healing properties. But they can also kill, and this is why medical charities are going into battle with the witch doctors of the west African country.

Take malaria, which kills more than a million people every year – more than 90 per cent of them in Africa. Today, World Malaria Day, nearly 3,000 children will die. On average, the impact of the illness slows economic growth rates by more than a percentage point: another thing that Sierra Leone, the world's least-developed country, could do without.

To cure this devastating disease, a herbalist takes a bunch of a particular sort of leaf from the forest and binds it with string. It is tied up three times for a woman and four times for a man, and then boiled in a vat. The resulting murky water is drunk like tea, only it tastes disgusting.

"It can make you vomit and go to the toilet all the time," says Jebbeh Amara. And she should know. With no money for more conventional drugs, she took the concoction last week and seems to think it did the trick, despite the awkward side-effects.

Her village is nearly two hours from the nearest town – but that's if you're lucky enough to have a vehicle to tumble down rutted tracks that turn and turn and turn again through the forest. Arriving at Mallay, home to swaying coconut and pink apple trees, everybody is in the fields, working up their harvest of rice and cassava. Only elderly men and the very sick stay behind, slowly swinging in an oasis of hammocks amid the heat and the thatched mud huts. It is the very definition of remote.

For those with malaria, the nearest medical centre is hours away by foot, but bush remedies are nearer and cheaper. "These people depend on traditional medicines they find in the bush," says Willemieke Vandenbroak, the leader of the Médecins Sans Frontières aid mission in Sierra Leone. "The leaves are very poisonous and they don't know the dose, so we have a lot of children coming in with poison and they die."

MSF is training villagers to give speedy, free malaria tests and treatment in 200 villages across the south of the country. Even in the hot, hilly capital Freetown, there are painted sheets stretched across roadsides depicting a range of illnesses that native doctors can "treat"– from malaria to being attacked by a winged gremlin.

Their pharmacies include potions, leaves, bits of bark and tree. "We have so many of these quacks and they don't know the job properly," said one villager volunteering with the MSF scheme.

Sierra Leone might be better known for the child soldiers of its 1991-2002 civil war, in which thousands of people had arms and legs amputated, but today's biggest killer is malaria, which is just about the easiest thing to put a halt to.

A three-day course of tablets to prevent the illness costs just $1 but a delay in treatment of 24 to 48 hours can be fatal. According to the World Health Organisation, prompt, effective treatment can reduce malaria death rates by half. That would save more than 500,000 lives a year.

Mohamed Amara, his wife and five-year old son have all had the disease this year, and have lost count of the times they had it last year. "We used traditional medicine," Mr Amara says. "It is a leaf. We boil it, then we drink the water. It is very bitter."

Amara is fed up with getting sick from malaria and then sick from eating the leaves. Last week, he collected all his money together and bought his first mosquito net. Now he and his family sleep beneath it together. "We are feeling a little bit brighter about the future," he adds.