Photo from IRIN/Celeste Hicks
There are so many barriers to keeping clean in Mali: availability of water in a semi-arid land, affordability of soap in an exceptionally poor country, cultural obstacles which are widespread in one of the least developed countries.
WaterAid, which helps some of the world’s poorest people is acting to provide safe water, effective sanitation and hygiene education.
At one school, they have provided a water tank to catch rainfall. Rainwater is caught in a V-shaped iron gutter hitched to the base of the school’s corrugated roof, channelled into a PVC pipe wrapped in anti-leak rags and then dribbled into the 10 cubic metre tank. It can then be used for drinking, toilet cleaning and wiping blackboards. It is part of a pilot scheme to perfect the technology, low tech to be sure, but any system in rural Mali needs to be. When there is no rain, water has to be bought from a water seller who arrives on a bicycle carrying water containers.
Hand washing has been shown to be one of the most effective ways to improve health - the benefits can be as good as vaccination. Unfortunately many, many people find the cost of commercial soaps too much for their budget so WaterAid has developed a scheme to help a group of women set up their own production line.
Saturday morning is soap-making day, a process which takes five hours. The raw ingredients are obtained using micro-credit: butter made from the nuts of the shea tree, caustic soda, starch, washing power and perfume. The end product is shaped by hand, hands covered in plastic bags followed by socks, to prevent any germ transfer, and then sold at an affordable rate, half the price of manufactured soap.
Unfortunately there is more to it than that. There are a number of entrenched ideas such as believing that washing hands after eating a good meal will mean that the good meal won't be eaten again for a long time. And this is where WaterAid's partner Jigi comes in, to provide hygiene education, community health and awareness raising. They explain the importance of hand washing at critical times, for example before preparing food. They are delighted that there are reports that 99% of people now wash their hands before eating.
So, perhaps some of us who receive exotic and expensive hand-made soaps for Christmas or birthday presents, should spare a thought for the very different hand-made soap in Mali, soap which has a far more important role to play. That soap may save somebody's life.