West Africa: Sewing Apprentices Use Their Skills to Make Face Masks

On 25 March 2020, the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Mali. A week earlier, the government had put in place preventative measures, suspending flights from affected countries, closing schools and banning large public gatherings. A state of emergency has since been declared and a curfew put in place from 9pm to 5am.

15-year-old Koumba is a student at Plan International's apprenticeship centre in the Koulikoro region where she is learning tailoring skills. "With the closure of the centre, we no longer had the opportunity to learn unless we practice at home. Everything is happening in slow motion, we are suspicious of each other, the atmosphere here is tense."

Koumba tells us that when the first positive case of COVID-19 was announced, the price of handwashing kits, sanitiser gels, and face mask for sale increased. "Despite the government's instructions to make these products accessible to the population, only the privileged few have the possibility of buying them," she explains.

Plan International is responding to the COVID-19 crisis in Mali and is working with its local partners to distribute handwashing kits and raise awareness in the region. We have also launched a radio campaign across six radio stations to inform the population about how to prevent the spread of the disease.

Despite all efforts, many people do not believe in the existence of COVID-19 due to the lack of clear information and the circulation of myths and rumours about the pandemic. It is customary to shake hands when meeting and greeting someone in Mali, so it is hard for people to respect social distancing and avoid hugging and shaking hands.

Wanting to do more to help keep her community safe, Koumba and her fellow tailoring apprentices decided to use their sewing skills to make face masks from washable cloth. With training and the provision of the materials needed from Plan International, they took to their sewing machines.

"We feel like we are taking more responsibility in the response to this pandemic through this activity. Everyone at their own level should contribute to the eradication of the coronavirus. I am in the sewing section of the vocational training centre and this initiative is allowing me to help my community,"Koumba explains.

So far, a total of 450 face masks have been made and distribution of them has already begun. The masks are being given to vulnerable groups, particularly the elderly and children.  Although the wearing of face masks is not compulsory in Mali, it has been strongly advised by the government.

"We have received handwashing kits and soap from Plan International, so these face masks are an additional protective measure. Most face masks are expensive and not reusable, but these are reusable, so we don't have to worry about how we are going to buy them. We know how to create them, and we can show others how to do it, thanks to the training we received at the centre," says Koumba.

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