INDIANAPOLIS - The last week of 2008, groups of 30 mosquito bed nets were folded delicately into a large satchels made of upholstery fabric. Long straps were sown onto the bag to harness around a human shoulder to carry approximately 48 pounds.

Days before, a dozen women swiftly sped the netting through professional sewing machines and sergers, constructing box-shaped canopies for the world's "poorest of the poor."

The tender hands creating the life-saving mosquito bed nets are twelve inmates of the Indiana Women's Prison (IWP). Their goal is to provide hope, to make a difference, to construct a net to counteract a killer disease called malaria. This will be their second shipment to Africa.

The first shipment of 30 nets was sent in spring 2008. Packed into an over-stuffed suitcase of a medical student traveling with the New Community Project Organization (NPC), the nets were delivered to Nimule, Sudan.

Meanwhile, a Peace Care worker in Nkurenkuru, Namibia, is waiting for 150 mosquito bed nets. Her home church, The Journey UMC in Indianapolis, raised thousands of dollars for the construction and shipment of the nets through an "Advent Conspiracy" program during the month of December.

Malaria is an infectious disease transmitted through a mosquito's bite; it can only take one bite to contract malaria. Through the bite, a parasite is released into a body and rapidly grows in the liver before spreading back into the bloodstream.

As much as 90 percent of African malaria transmission can be reduced with the use of insecticide-treated bed nets; it provides a protective barrier against mosquitoes' bites late at night and early morning when the vast majority of mosquitoes swarm.

A bed net is usually hung above the center of a bed or sleeping space completely covering the sleeping person.

Global outreach

In 2007, a dozen inmates of the IWP had an assignment in their college business class to develop an entrepreneurship. Constructing mosquito nets to fight malaria in Africa was an idea developed between their Oakland City University Professor Kristie Stewart, and David Ratliff of NPC.

Two central Indiana companies donated sergers and provided free repairs, while a Benedictine nun, Sister Bernadine, pledged monies from craft sales to thread the machines. Acknowledging the seriousness of the outreach, NPC donated $15,000 for materials. The class project became a "fully operational community outreach program within the Indiana Women's Prison" touching hundreds of lives on another continent thousands of miles away.

"It has been an epiphany in my life, I want to put a child to bed at night (with the net)," said inmate Denise. With $14.50 for cigarettes or a couple of cups of coffee, a child can have a mosquito net, she said.

For inmate Leslie, taking pride as a prisoner has made her life more positive. "I can make the most of my life while I am here," she said.

In the beginning, after researching malaria and the country of Sudan, the prison outreach project searched for a prototype to build resilient and non-problematic bed nets. Brainstorming with Phil and Louise Rieman, co-pastors at Northview Church of the Brethren, Indianapolis, who were missionaries in Africa in the 1990s, the new bed net design added a solid, or un-netted, bottom to the bed net to prevent shredding from a rough mattress or bed. In addition, a canopy of solid muslin was added to protected individuals sleeping from droppings from rodents and lizards on the ceiling.

"I saw the prototype and got my brain twirling," said inmate Sherrill Russell. "I was stoked. We can do this. It was overwhelming," she said.

At first, inmate Michelle Jones saw the project as useful because she knew how to sew. "It grew into something that incarcerated my heart. The idea of an offender helping someone in Sudan made it real; we have a kinship," she said.

With her serger sewing machine named Rufus, Jones with fellow inmates Glenda Robinette, Paula Willoughby and Sherrill Russell completed the double-seamed mosquito bed nets.

Nothing But Nets
Sherrill Russell uses a serger machine to make bed nets in prison.

"There is no other organization making this high quality of nets," said Professor Stewart. She said the nets cost $14 to construct. While many bed nets can be produced for as little as $10, these "Cadillac nets'" longevity expands from 10-15 years compared to the 3-5 years of cheaper nets.

With the incentive to create superior nets, inmate Connie Tomich said the photographs of the young children from Africa motivated her to help "someone halfway across the world."

More than 7,000 miles away in Sudan, close to 90 percent of all deaths by malaria in the world occur in sub-Saharan Africa, including thousands of babies and children. The International Medical Corps states that 1 in 5 childhood deaths are caused by malaria and HIV/AIDS combined. In between 300 to 500 million people contract malaria annually with one million dying each year. To put this into perspective, consider every citizen of the United States infected with malaria and the population of the Indianapolis metro area dying each year from the disease.

But the distribution of mass quantities to large African populations has not always been successful. According to the World Health Organization, the wave of mass malaria net distribution from affluent nations through "social marketing" is corrupt or unbalanced; in other words, only five percent of the funding ended up in the nets and insecticide. Under social marketing, the "richest of the poor" had 38 percent coverage, while "poorest of the poor" received only 15 percent, said WHO.

This is not exactly what the seamstresses of the IWP had in mind for their nets. "Most people don't make a dollar a day," said inmate Laura Campbell in a class room presentation to visitors.

Therefore, included in their business plan is an unconventional statement about the distribution of their nets. "We have two conditions for receiving the nets," said inmate Paula Willoughby. "First, everyone receives a net and it is not dependent upon economic situations, and second, the nets will not negatively impact the culture of those receiving the nets."

In the class' plan, Malaria: One Net-One Life Mosquito Net Project, it states: "This project allows those involved to save lives and to give hope to the poor, a population often overlooked."

Pronouncing herself as a naysayer, inmate Kim Baldwin said her personal belief is that westerners infringe on other cultures. "In our own Christianity, are we always really helping them?" she said.

"I am not doing lip-service. We cannot buy empowerment, but we can make a difference" exactly where the natural culture is placed in the world at the time, said Baldwin.

Student delivers first 30

Sarah Durnbaugh, 25, a second year Indiana University medical student, and member of the Northview Church of the Brethren, Indianapolis, arrived in Africa to endured a nine-hour bus ride with a poultry companion roosting on her foot. The first 30 IWP mosquito bed nets were handed to Girl Child Committee representatives, a grassroots organization advocating empowerment for women in Nimule, Sudan.

Later, Durnbaugh did see the IWP mosquito nets used in Nimule's only hospital. During her three-month stay in Nimule, she was assigned to work in a reforestation project near the Nile River and taught a biology class to high school students.

After returning to the U.S., Durnbaugh shared photographs of Nimule with the IWP outreach group. "We saw pictures of the village elders giving the nets to the mothers who were having children," said inmate Paula Willoughby.

Through an incentive program to encourage women to obtain prenatal care, the nets were given to women with babies as a reward for seeking medical care, says Durnbaugh.

"Most women don't go, but the nets were made well enough to encourage the women to come and receive prenatal care," she said. With only four doctors available in Nimule, a town population up to 50,000, prenatal care is sparse.

"It is common for babies to die from malaria," said Durnbaugh.

Over 3,000 children ages five and under will die daily in Africa of malaria. But malaria is treatable and preventable. The disease is marked by raging fevers, chills, nausea and headaches.

Durnbaugh said she remembers a boy named Steven, 7, who dealt with a malaria relapse during her visit. "I remember that he just sat in a chair," she said.

Malaria has been eliminated in many parts of Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Yet in Africa, with increasing drug resistance and struggling health systems, malaria infections have increased during the last three decades.

Jeffrey Sachs, director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, said malaria is treatable with medicines that cost $1 per treatment. Simple remedies, such as insecticide treated mosquito bed nets, and distributing anti-malaria drugs in villages, are key to combating the disease.

Next set

When Ron Branson, an Oakland City University instructor, and member of The Journey UMC, Indianapolis, approached a fellow church member whose daughter was in the Peace Corps in Namibia, the link to send the IWP mosquito bed nets to Africa was activated. Through a counter culture response to Christmas, "The Advent Conspiracy," the church raised funds close to $5,000 for 150 nets to be shipped to Nkurenkuru, Namibia.

"All the learners (school children) who live in the hostel school will receive a net," said Sarah Buffie, a Peace Corps health extension volunteer working on HIV AIDS related issues in Nkurenkuru. "Every net will change the lives of the children. They usually sleep under ripped nets or no nets with two to a bed," said Buffie.

But the hostel school is what Buffie calls "utterly inhumane." Eroding walls and ceilings, including standing water in the bathroom and showers, perpetuate the malaria epidemic in areas situated in the malaria hot-zone. The mosquitoes swarm and breed right next to the sleeping children.

"If learners are expected to be alert, productive and healthy students in their classrooms, they certainly deserve a suitable place to lay their heads at night," said Buffie. She says it is a matter of human rights being violated and we are trying to do something about using mosquito nets and providing healthy teaching environment. "If the project is not implemented, learners will go on living in these terrible conditions," said Buffie.

"It will add to a mentality of hopelessness," she said. "Therefore, in the eyes of Nkurenkuru, incompletion of the project is not an option."

Along with the personal requests from the IWP outreach, Buffie said Africa needs to develop "at a pace that doesn't bulldoze culture and language." Through partnerships and empowerment, the handouts making people and places dependent upon outsiders may be exchanged for hard work and commitment, she said.

"There needs to be recognition of one's humanity and an end to corruption in government," said Buffie.

Sharon Dunten is a freelance writer and lives in Indianapolis.