For many people around the world, Global Handwashing Day barely registers and certainly isn't scribed into the calendar like Christmas, Independence Day or Eid al-Adha. But for millions of others (this year an estimated 250 million in more than 100 countries took part in events) the occasion has become a moment to dance, sing and party often in the face of adversity – bringing life and energy to the simple but important message that 'clean hands can save lives'.
In South Sudan the opportunity is embraced by NGOs, working with communities who, because of lack of knowledge and education, are often unaware of the importance of personal cleanliness such as washing hands. We use the day as a chance to mobilize people, through lively themed celebrations to spread the word that the basic act of washing hands with soap could save more lives than any single vaccine or medical intervention.
And so I found myself in Jamam refugee camp, filming children in their recently built mud hut school being taught a new version of the well known song “The Wheels on the bus go round and round”. We changed the lyrics from transport to the fundamentals of washing hands.
Oxfam is leading water, sanitation and health promotion (WASH) in two of the four camps (Jamam and Gendrassa) in South Sudan. The camps have grown in the last year to support more than 100,000 refugees fleeing conflict in two states along the Sudanese border.
Their exuberance at singing and learning is etched on many of the kids' faces – and as they gain confidence in their new song, the decibels rise upwards and upwards. The next day the women in Gendrassa camp, gathered together by Oxfam for an information sharing session on hygiene, need no encouragement to belt out in their local dialect a newly created song and dance (lyrics by the tribe's musician).
Cecilia, one of Oxfam's South Sudanese Assistant Public Health Promoters, herself once a refugee because of the war, joined in enthusiastically. Then she captured the attention of the crowd with a spirited talk on when and why washing hands is so important, and how essential it is to help avoid catching the waterborne disease Hepatitis E – an outbreak of which had resulted in a number of deaths in the camps in previous weeks.
On the day itself I'm in a different state in South Sudan – Warrap – where 64% of the population lives below the poverty line. School children, people returning to the country after the war (of which there are approximately 140,000 in this state alone), locals, ministers and community leaders all joined in the spirit of the occasion, and for a few hours the usual hard pattern of life was replaced with an energetic celebration.
The colorful occasion embodied the positive words from Oxfam's Simon But Gai: "If one person passes this message to ten people, and those people tell ten more, we can spread the message to the whole world – and these diseases related to handwashing will be eliminated."