Are you sure you want a handshake?

How many times have you gone to shake someone’s hand, looked at it and wished that the Earth could swallow you? It’s okay, you don’t have to go first, I will. A few times I’ve seen someone blow their nose, wipe the mucus on their trousers and then thrust their hand in your face. That is pretty bad but the worst is when you actually see someone urinate behind a grassy knoll,  then have to keep a fixed smile on your face as they come forward, arms extended for a hug. If you are Rwandan, live in Rwanda or visited Rwanda you’ve either seen this happen to you, or it has without your knowledge.

I love just how much we hug, kiss and shake hands. It’s an everyday manifestation of our sense of community. I remember, back in 1994 when I first came to Rwanda from exile, I felt besieged by hands waiting to be shook. But as I became more and more familiarized, I actually found it odd that I didn’t get hugs from random people when I travelled to say, Kampala. A European friend of mine finds all the physical contact rather beautiful. I cannot disagree. Until, that is, I go to the public bathroom in Union Trade Centre mall in town and notice just how untouched the hand soap is.

Yesterday I attended the opening of the third Africa Conference on hygiene and Sanitation (AfriSan3) at the Serena Hotel. The first session of the day was headlines by the indomitable ‘Princess of Africa’ Yvonne Chaka Chaka, the South African songstress best known for her hits ‘Thank you Mister Deejay’ and ‘Umqombothi’. I expected a song and jig, but all I got was a welcome lecture on the importance of washing your hands with soap. Mrs. Chaka Chaka, who also happens to be a UNICEF Goodwill ambassador, told the gathered press corps that 50 percent of diarrheal diseases can be prevented by simply washing your hands with soap. This solution seems incredibly simple, but obviously something isnt working.

When asked whether the problem was a lack of soap Dr. Myriam Sidibe, a public health expert, said that more than 90 percent of households had access to soap. According to her, the issue was that people were either not using the soap at all, or using it wrongly. I honestly couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I couldn’t believe that, in today’s’ world where information is on ones fingertips, people didn’t know how to wash their hands properly or, in fact, when to.

I’m of the opinion that a huge campaign should be undertaken by our society. We mustn’t just leave everything to MINISANTE, UNICEF or any one organization. It has to be cross cutting. For example, what is the point of having a huge media campaign, where a big personality publically leads a bunch of kids in a hand washing exercise, when there are simply not enough public toilets? Will these newly educated children refuse to defecate when the urge hits them simply because they cannot then wash their hands after they are done? I think not. An entire infrastructure has to be built around this sanitation drive.

Rwanda is not doing too badly if you look at the Millennium Development Goals on sanitation; in fact, we are among the five sub-Saharan nations that are on schedule to meet the goals by 2015. But I think that these statistics aren’t good enough and they don’t tell the entire story. While ACESS to sanitation and hygiene is one thing, getting people to use these tools is another thing altogether. That is what we must do. If not, don’t get offended if I don’t offer you my hand in greeting. My hands are clean, but are yours?


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