The Guardian

The big sleep: how the world's most troubled country is beating a deadly disease

Beset by war, violence and political instability, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is not the ideal place to be trying to stamp out sleeping sickness, a killer illness. But that is what is happening

The Kasai river slides far across the plain. When the rains come, the sandbars in the middle – where fishermen have built temporary encampments consisting of straw huts – will disappear, making the river wider still.

Local people will tell you it’s just a rivière; in this country, they reserve the word fleuve, a big river, for the mighty Congo alone.

Mushie is built on one bank of the Kasai river, in the way that towns in other countries spawn from main roads. The town is two hours in a fast boat from Bandundu, and seven hours along the river in the other direction from the provincial capital, Inongo. There is no road. It’s only when you travel these inland waters, passing the standing fishermen paddling their pirogues – passing the dugout canoes and the big, flat cargo boats, laden perilously low in the water with families sitting on top of their goods – that you get a true sense of the scale of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The country is as big as western Europe, with its people scattered across small villages lying along the rivers, in the forests and on the plains.

If you were going to try to stamp out a lethal disease, you wouldn’t want to be doing it here. Yet that is what’s happening. In DRC, a country tarnished in international eyes by war and violence, Congolese doctors are finally winning the battle with sleeping sickness, a disease of west and central Africa that became an epidemic thanks partly to the enforced displacement of peoples and poverty caused by the policies of invading European colonialists.

  Rowing pirogues along the river.


At the turn of the millennium, there were roughly 30,000 cases in DRC. Last year, there were 1,100. In the first half of this year, 350 were recorded. On the horizon is the tantalising prospect of elimination. The vast majority of the world’s remaining cases, 85%, are in DRC. “If DRC eliminates sleeping sickness, the world eliminates sleeping sickness,” says Dr Victor Kande, former head of the government programme to fight the

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