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Sierra Leone Flashmob Promotes Global Handwashing Day

Dancers perform in a flashmob in downtown Freetown, Sierra Leone, Oct. 14, 2013. (N.deVries/VOA)

Dancers perform in a flashmob in downtown Freetown, Sierra Leone, Oct. 14, 2013. (N.deVries/VOA)

Tuesday is Global Handwashing Day, and Sierra Leone is using an innovative way to promote awareness of proper hand washing to prevent illnesses like cholera and diarrhea. A consortium created the country's first flashmob to get people's attention.
In a packed room of about 200 dancers, an instructor explains the choreography they are going to perform as a flashmob on the streets of Freetown.

A flashmob is a group of people who suddenly assemble in a public place, perform some sort of action together, then just as suddenly, disperse... leaving those who watched them entertained, and - in this case - informed.

The event was organized by a network of five non-governmental organizations, known as the Urban WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) Consortium, along with the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Water Resources.

Krystle Lai is a behavior change communications expert and the main organizer. She came up with the idea for a flashmob.

She hopes it will spur people's interest to make proper hand washing a daily routine.

"We know people have the knowledge, we know that people know when they are supposed to wash their hands and how they're supposed to wash their hands, but really it's about converting that knowledge into real practice and only then will we see reduction in mortality," said Lai.

According to the World Health Organization, diarrhea is the second leading cause of death in children under age five worldwide, killing 1.8 million children every year.
Experts say half of these deaths could be prevented if people washed their hands.
Lai says the theme of the flashmob is "the power is in your hands."

"We cannot go to each caregiver or mother with a child under age of five, but message we want to spread is that you do have the power, the power is in your hands to change the situation of a child dying from diarrhea and still being sick," she said.

The message is getting through to some people like Isatu Sesay, a mother who watched the flashmob with her two small babies.

She explains in her native Krio language that the event sparked her interest on why it's important to wash hands to prevent disease such as cholera.

Last year, Sierra Leone had a cholera outbreak which took almost 300 lives. That pushed the government and international organizations to put stronger measures in place to stop it from happening again. Steps included better training for health care workers and more volunteers to do community education programs on prevention, including the importance of hand washing.

The government is also working to improve water quality, says Momodu Maligi, the minister of water resources. He says better water facilities are being built around the country.

"There's an increase in water quality monitoring and testing. The last few years we've had serious cases of cholera and diarrhea. This year, thank God, we haven't had that and I think is a direct result of the increase of the government investment and activities in the water sector," said Maligi.

And as the the flashmob made its way into downtown Freetown, stopping traffic and creating a scene, Lai explained that there's more to come.

A short film is being put together by Concept Multimedia, a local film company, and the Urban WASH consortium, which will include footage of the flashmob and some key hygiene messages.

It will be broadcast around Freetown later in the week.

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