In Florida, mosquitoes are annoying; in East Angola, they are killers.
The Rev. Armando Rodriguez Jr. has seen firsthand the devastation mosquito-borne diseases like malaria can inflict during his visits to the former Portuguese colony in southwest Africa.
|Icel Rodriquez, director of Global Missions, and her husband, Rev. Armando Rodriquez Jr., have been visiting East Angola on mission trips since 2006.|
Rodriguez, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Bartow, and his wife, Icel Rodriguez, director of the Florida Conference’s Global Missions, have been visiting East Angola since 2006 and lived there for a year in 2009. During their most recent two-week visit in September, they delivered 1300 pounds of medicine and supplies.
As part of its mission partnership in the African country with the East Angola Conference, the Florida Conference is providing medical supplies, support and training, much of it targeting malaria.
“It attacks families with few resources. They choose between feeding the family or buying medication. And many of them think ‘I will save the rest of the family with food and let this one die,’” Rodriguez said. “Many of the kids are orphans because their parents had malaria.
“The doctors showed us their records. From June through August this year, they tested 600 children for malaria, 500 tested positive,” Rodriguez said. “It’s endemic, and it’s killing them, especially children.”
Rodriguez remembers visiting a village with a team that was giving malaria tests.
“There was a baby, 1 1/2 years old. He had malaria and was very weak,” he said. “His brothers, 10 and 13 years old, look after him because one parent died and the other one abandoned them. We took the baby to the hospital and left money with the boys.”
It’s a heart-breaking story that should never have happened because malaria is a treatable and preventable disease.
Malaria, a parasite, enters the bloodstream and reproduces in the liver. Its most common symptom is high fever, but it also can attack the brain, causing permanent damage.
One of the students at the Quéssua mission school, which is supported by the Florida Conference, was preparing to leave for Cuba to study on scholarship at the seminary, Rodriguez said. A few days before his departure, he began hallucinating, experiencing paranoia and had to be restrained.
|The Florida Conference mission team delivered 1300 pounds of medicine and supplies using carry-on luggage in September. Along with bags of mosquito netting and other supplies, they brought an unprecedented 800 pounds of anti-malaria drugs.|
Doctors determined that he was mentally ill and had permanent brain damage from multiple cases of malaria. “It was really sad,” Rodriguez said. “He was a good kid, very bright. He wanted to be a pastor.”
Angola has had more than 260,000 cases of malaria in the past year and more than 700 deaths, according to the Africa Times. Rodriquez stated that the malaria epidemic is a byproduct of political and economic instability.
The country won its independence from Portugal in 1975 and immediately plunged into a civil war that lasted until 2002. The years of war left Angola devastated, its infrastructure in ruins.
Among the casualties was the Methodist complex Quéssua, which rebels seized and used as their base. Much of it was destroyed in bombing, Rodriguez said, but with the help of Florida Conference donations, the church, school and hospital have been rebuilt.
But the work in Angola is hobbled by the sad irony that although the country is rich in natural resources like oil and diamonds, it is quite poor, Rodriguez said.
Angola is the second largest oil producer in Africa, he said, but when the price of oil dropped several years ago, the economy was devastated.
“They were making a comeback, but they didn’t develop their other industries,” he said. “Now they don’t have money to buy medicine.”
Not only does Angola not have money to buy medicine, but its transportation system is poor. When they do have medicine, it is difficult to deliver, Rodriguez said.
“Our mission is critical,” he said.
Florida Conference’s Global Missions visits the country two or three times a year. They take the medicines and supplies in carry-on luggage. In September, they took 26 50-pound bags, which cost them $3,000 in fees.
Expensive, but worth it, Rodriguez said.
Over time, they have developed a strong relationship with the government, partly because many of the leaders are graduates of the Quéssua school.
The government has been supportive of the United Methodist effort, providing mobile medical units and nurses. “We have to bring the fuel and the medicine,” Rodriguez said.
In addition to anti-malarial drugs, Florida Conference teams bring antibiotics, anti-diarrheal medicines, vitamins, skin medication, ringworm drugs and other medical supplies like birthing kits, gloves and bandages.
Teams travel to remote areas where they test villagers for malaria, distribute drugs to treat it and educate them about how to prevent it, including the use of mosquito netting.
|In a country devastated by civil war for 27 years, Angola's struggling economy and infrastructure have left many in desolate conditions. There were 260,000 cases of malaria in 2016 alone.|
“They are high-quality, chemically treated nets that will kill mosquitoes on contact,” Rodriguez said. “But the people don’t use them. They take them into the city and sell them for about $30, so they can buy food.”
The General Board of Global Ministries launched a local Imagine No Malaria campaign, using students from the Quéssua school to go into villages to teach people about how to prevent malaria.
The students will install the netting over their woven sleeping mats and discourage them from selling the nets.
They also will explain to villagers that by keeping the tall grasses around the village cut, they can reduce the places where mosquitoes breed, especially during the rainy season, he said.
Another emphasis will be the importance of taking anti-malaria drugs daily and supplementing their diets with vitamins.
“Many people have malaria but they ignore it, maybe because of poverty,” he said. “But it’s important to treat it.”
Malaria isn’t the only health issue facing Angolans, and Florida Conference teams are working to address those as well.
The Quéssua hospital was rebuilt two years ago with new X-ray equipment, incubators, even a dentist’s office. But you won’t find patients in its beds, Rodriguez said. It can only be used as a clinic because it lacks medication and technicians to run the equipment.
In future visits, Rodriguez said they hope to bring specialists and technicians to the hospital to get it up and running.
“The Florida churches have been very generous,” Rodriguez said. “We are very grateful for what they do. This is a partnership with the church in East Angola. We want to empower them so they can do as much as they can by themselves.”
--Lilla Ross is a freelance writer based in Jacksonville.