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Myriam Sidibe: 'I have a PhD in 'handwashing'


There is a certain glow in Myriam Sidibe that makes her radiant. Perhaps it is her expectant state – at the time of the interview, she is about to give birth to her third child (by the time we went to press a few weeks later, she had been blessed with a son).

Or it could be the satisfaction she gets from championing her pet subjects – good nutrition and proper hygiene. Or the fact that her father, Michel Sidibe, who is her greatest mentor, rose from a humble background to be the second in command to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and executive director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids (UNAIDS). It is a combination of all these.

Sidibe is a citizen of the world. At 40, she has already lived in over 20 countries and visited more than 50 in all continents as family and duty called.

I first met her at a breakfast meeting in Nairobi recently. She was on a campaign to promote good nutrition especially among school going children.

She speaks with passion. That is as should be for a lady who co-founded the Global Handwashing Day marked every October 15. As a matter of fact, Sidibe is among the very few people on the planet with a Doctorate in Public Health with special emphasis on handwashing from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. During her time at the London college, the only other person with similar qualifications was her supervisor.

Now, I know there are many reasons why a person would go for such high credentials just to teach others how to wash their hands. But as I could not think of one during the brief encounter in the city hotel, a proper interview was in order.

We arrived at her Runda home Tuesday morning only to be told by the guard that the lady of the house was away for a dental appointment. “But you can wait for her if she is expecting you,” the guard tells us. I mulled over the possibility that she may not be in a position to talk after a visit to a dentist. I was wrong.

Her husband, Yan Welffens, calms our nerves as he shows us to the sitting room. On the table are several books that give us a glimpse of Sidibe’s lifestyle. Kilimanjaro, Lamu and Zanzibar. She likes the outdoors.

A few minutes later, Sidibe walks into the room. I am having a cup of tea while Okwiri, our photographer, settles for mango juice.

At the behest of Okwiri, we convince her to change to a more African outfit for the photos. Though she is three weeks to delivery, she doesn’t look it. The flowing dress flatters her.

Sidibe, a Malian, was born in France where her parents were studying. She is the first born among two other girls and a boy. Though she grew up in what could be termed a privileged household, the vagaries of poverty in her home country were not far from her.

“I went to a public primary school in Mali and saw firsthand how those with limited means suffered from preventable causes. I always wanted to do something to alleviate causes of suffering among our people,” she tells us.

Her first training was in civil engineering, specifically in water and waste management. But this was not enough. According to her, you can give people the right tools and facilities but they need help in utilising them to their benefit. A hands-on approach (no pun intended) was necessary.

Young children, she says, were dying either due to poor nutrition or unhygienic practices. Mass mobilisation was necessary for her to achieve her dreams of assisting the less fortunate.

Last year, she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to raise funds for building clinics in Ethiopia. This strikes a familiar chord to efforts of our First Lady Margaret Kenyatta’s Beyond Zero Campaign. “By the way Margaret and I are friends. We have similar causes to live for,” she says.

Today, as the Global Social Mission Director for Lifebuoy, Myriam Sidibe leads a movement that has reached 183 million people in more than 16 countries. Her passion in preventing child mortality is best illustrated by her words on Ted Talk.

A billion people

“Imagine a plane about to crash with 250 babies on board. Now imagine 60 such planes crashing each day. That is the number of children who do not reach their fifth birthday. Most of these deaths are preventable and that’s what makes me sad, makes me angry. Diarrhea and pneumonia are among the top two killers. To prevent, them we don’t need the latest innovation but one of the oldest inventions – a bar of soap. Washing hands reduces diarrhea by half, respiratory diseases by a third...” and on and on she goes.

Her goal is to get at least a billion people change their habits regarding handwashing. “This is the most cost effective way of preventing disease. You can find a bar of soap in nearly every home but whether people use it is another thing altogether,” she says.

So embedded is handwashing in her psyche that when young, her eldest daughter, Soraya, would hand over hand sanitisers to visitors right on the doorway lest they infect her then newborn brother, Yerim-Michel with a disease.

Twin subjects

“With such a busy schedule, does Myriam have time for her family?” I ask.

“You can see my tummy. I am expecting another girl so I have time for family,” she says tongue in cheek.

After ending her first marriage, Sidibe met her childhood friend Welffens and the two tied the knot on Jamhuri Day 2012. “Just see, he is such a loving and understanding man,” she says pointing to a bowl of soup he had just served her after our interview.

Welffens is a career hotelier who worked as a top manager at The Tribe, a Five-star hotel in Gigiri. For the last year and a half, he has been busy working on a new French restaurant he hopes to open soon at Riverside.

In her simplicity, Sidibe will not tire of articulating her twin subjects – better nutrition and good hygiene – in the best way she can.

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