Hector Rifa was a professor from Spain with a good question: What could people do better to protect Cambodia’s hill tribe people from the dangers of malaria? Fortunately, he also had a good answer: Study them.
Armed with the curiosity of an academic and the tenacity of an adventurer—and with as many mosquito nets and blankets as he could carry—Rifa set out with a team of researchers to the northern end of Ratanakkiri province. There, they conducted a series of surveys aimed at finding out how much the people living there knew about malaria and what could be done to help them.
It turns out, though, that the people didn’t know much. Not at first, said Rifa, who is an associate professor of behavioral research at the University of Oviedo in Spain.
But there is a well-connected social structure that transmits information efficiently. And the team found that after it had made an initial visit, there was a drastic turnaround in the amount of information average hill tribe people possessed.
Rifa and his team, with help from the government’s National Malaria Center, first asked a series of questions related to malaria and its prevention.
They also made sure that the questions were designed with the traditional belief of the hill tribes in mind.
Do you know what malaria is? Do you know if the mosquito transmits any illnesses. What do the spirits think about sleeping under a mosquito net? What do the spirits think about sleeping together under the same mosquito net?
The researchers asked around a dozen such questions, including questions about social taboos concerning who could sleep with whom under a blanket. (The northeastern mountains can get very cold, Rifa said, so instead of having people get up in the middle of the night to stand around a fire—and catch malaria—he thought it would be better to wrap them up).
The team also noted the people’s sleeping behavior, mapped each village, sketched floor plans of every house, and noted the social dynamics between age groups, gender and family members.
Rifa, who was funded partly through his university and partly through the Council of Oviedo, his city council, will now return to Spain to put together all of his findings into a research paper that scientifically analyzes the results of his study.
Preliminary findings, though, were encouraging.
After his visit, not only did hundreds of people get blankets or nets, but they all got a lot smarter about malaria.
“The effect of delivering the mosquito net is provoking education,” Rifa said recently in Phnom Penh, after weeks on the border. “The people here have a very strong social structure [and] in every village, there is someone who can be a teacher.”