by Joyce J. Wangui
- Kenya -
Young Kamau carries a heavy bucket of water on his head. Clad in tattered clothes that barely conceal his ill-nourished body, the young boy is aware that the cameras are focused not on the water he is carrying, but at the sores on his feet. Kamau can barely walk as most of his toes have been eaten up by jiggers. What is left of the flesh is a mere fragile skin covered with pus and dead cells. The boy is conscious of our shock as we realize that the whole village of Kiangage is infested with the deadly bug.
A jigger, scientific name Tunga penetrans, is a sand flea that is brought about by lack of hygiene and breeds in dirty areas. The impregnated female Tunga embeds itself in the skin under the toenails and feeds on the skin of its host. A jigger-infested foot is completely disfigured; the afflicted can barely walk due to the pain from ruptured flesh. The resulting social isolation in turn creates a sense of trauma and reduced self-esteem.
Jigger infestation is largely considered a thing of the past, but in Kenya, hundreds of rural dwellers are living with jiggers in their bodies. To combat national ignorance, Ahadi Trust Kenya, the only NGO leading an anti-jigger campaign in the country, organized a tour for journalists. En route to Muranga district, about two hours’ drive from Nairobi, officials forewarned us of the disturbing images we would encounter.
Our worst fears were confirmed. We came across shocking and unbelievable levels of jigger infestation. The locals appeared oblivious to the pain and suffering they encountered on a daily basis, going about their daily chores regardless of our distress and sympathy. The only thing that bothers them, we learn, is the ridicule and the stigmatization they face from un-infected villagers.
“It is like being infected with HIV,” says Ann Muthoni, a poor single mother. Muthoni and her six children are all infected by jiggers. They live in a shack barely able to accommodate all of them, lacking basic amenities such as water. They cannot wash their bodies, thus attracting jiggers.
“I would rather hide in my hut than seek treatment because then, my family will become the laughing stock of the village,” admits Muthoni, who upon seeing cameras, looks down in embarrassment. She tills barren land with difficulty as both her hands and feet are infested. She can barely nurture her young ones as she is drained of energy. One look at her children reveals appalling malnutrition. We were compelled to hold back our tears when Muthoni’s youngest son, Kinuthia crawled with pain to clutch his mother’s dry breast in search of milk. The toddler writhed in agony due to the sores on his feet and toes.
Muthoni’s family is one among many that continues to grapple with the jigger dilemma in Kiangage village. Kiangage is Kikuyu for “a place for the jigger” - a rightful name due to the magnitude of the infestation here. Most families live in abject poverty, dependent on farming for their livelihood. During dry spells, farmers bemoan their fate as the soil cannot sustain vegetation. Children bear the heaviest brunt of the deadly bug as they can no longer walk to school and even then, they find it hard to focus in class.
A visit to Kiangage Primary School where several pupils have been attacked by this bug shocked us even more. From poverty-stricken homes and in threadbare clothes, these students not only contend with excruciating physical pain but also with the piercing ridicule of their fellow students. During lunch, pupils from poor families distance themselves from their well-to-do peers, watching them swallow their meals from a distance.
One student, identified only as Kamau, comes from a very poor family. This is evident from his worn out school uniform and the fact that he cannot afford to bring lunch like the rest of the pupils, his class teacher confides. “He does without lunch and in the evening, he eats hard boiled maize with nothing [else].”
Bernard Githere’s family has been intensely attacked by jiggers. When we visited his house, we were greeted by a foul smell. Like many others, this family of four lives in dire poverty and Githere admits that they have not bathed for many months for lack of water.
“We have had to succumb to jiggers - they are part of our family,” he laments.
He says the jiggers are seasonal and at their peak during the hot season. Githere’s wife Gladys Wanjiru and her two sons, Gitumbi (4) and Irungu (1) peep through their small window. Afraid to face the journalists, they hide inside until their father asks them to come out. Irungu can hardly crawl or walk; his legs are too weak and his growth has been stunted by the infection.
Hannah Wangechi is a woman in her mid to late twenties; she is not sure when she was born. Her timidity must be a result of her condition, for she is very aware that she is different. Married with two children, she is the only one infected by jiggers in her family. Wangechi confirms that she shares her sleeping quarters with chickens - perfect carriers of the fleas. She cannot wear shoes because her feet have been badly disfigured.
Link with HIV/AIDS
An unappreciated risk is the spread of HIV/AIDS by using unsterilized equipment to remove the bugs from different people. Deputy Chief Mrs. Frasier Kihara told us that villagers are uneducated about the spread of HIV in the region. She thinks a parallel effort is needed to educate villagers of these dangers alongside eradicating the jigger infestations. She divulged that she has witnessed mothers remove jiggers from HIV-positive children’s toes before using the same needle on another child who does not have the virus.
“This clearly indicates ignorance in terms of HIV infection and sharing of instruments.”
A glimmer of hope
The NGO Ahadi Kenya has been at the forefront of reversing the jigger trend in most villages. Executive Director Stanley Kamau contacted a well-known celebrity, Cecilia Mwangi, Miss Kenya 2005, to act as a goodwill ambassador in the fight against jiggers. As well as soliciting financial assistance from the government, the former diva collaborates with local journalists to raise awareness of the infestation through a campaign she dubbed, “Help remove my jigger.”
Ahadi Kenya recently organized a media launch attended by members of the press, government officials and other well-wishers. A graphic presentation was made using photos and videos shot from previous visits to the villages, followed by an open discourse that allowed everyone an opportunity to air their feelings on the issue.
Director Kamau is optimistic that his organization will succeed in eradicating jiggers. Having grown up in an infested area, he recalls that almost every child, himself included, was prone to the pest. He vowed to give back to society by eliminating the pests.
“We want to see a Kenya free of jiggers. We want to see poor villagers regain inner strength when they are finally healed. We want to see children able to walk properly and not crawling to school,” he says with great passion.
Ahadi Kenya has become a household name in jigger communities. Locals describe the organization as their only savior and decry the laxity of their chiefs in stemming the tide of infestation. Armed with the necessary equipment, including disinfectants, fumigation material and medical supplies, members of Ahadi embark on a noble course that will change the lives of jigger victims. The NGO has commissioned educational centers in villages to deal with prevention, treatment and basic hygiene measures.
The organization has also pioneered the rescue and referral of jigger-infected persons to health centers where they can receive proper medication.
“We also facilitate training of health workers to change attitudes towards infected villagers: Jigger infestation is commonly seen as an embarrassment in society and many people will be shy to come out and visit health centers as the same attitude is held by health workers,” admits Kamau.
Ahadi Kenya plans to spread its wings country-wide and across borders to neighboring Uganda and Rwanda. Through its effort, jiggers may truly become a relic of the past.
About the Author
Joyce J. Wangui is a freelance journalist from Nairobi, Kenya and writes for various online media outlets such as Africa News and Highway Africa News Agency. She earned a Diploma in Mass Communication in 2002, and started her media career in Rwanda in early 2003 where she worked as a senior political reporter for The New Times, a state-owned English newspaper.
Joyce has traveled to Ethiopia, Zambia, Botswana, Malawi and South Africa writing news and features on health, ICT, business and human rights. She has also conducted exclusive interviews with former Botswanan President Festus Mogae and his Zambian counterpart Kenneth Kaunda on HIV issues.
Joyce is a member of Highway Africa, an annual gathering of African journalists that addresses issues affecting African journalists on a daily basis as well as the progress made by African media. The conference has become the largest annual gathering of African journalists in the world.