Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
Every now and then, someone accomplishes something so remarkable that you just have to talk about it. The accomplishment I have in mind has quietly taken place over the past two and a half decades in some of the most remote, desolate villages on earth. These places are so isolated they’re virtually never covered in any news stories and so desolate they have no rivers, streams, or other forms of running water to help keep them alive. Instead, shallow valleys near the villages fill with water during the rainy seasons and then slowly dry up and fester as the annual drought burns its way through the calendar.
As the months pass, the water holes become contaminated with all manner of microbes. In the midst of this deadly cocktail live tens of thousands of sand fleas. Inside the sand fleas you’ll find even tinier larvae. The sand fleas are so small they’re hard to see unless you scoop them up in a glass of water and hold them up to the light. Even then, if you have no microbiologists or theory of modern medicine, you wouldn’t know what to think of the squirming, translucent creatures within.
The villagers, given no other choices, gather the contaminated water, pour it into earthen pots, carry it to their huts and use it for washing, cooking, and drinking. Once ingested, the sand fleas dissolve, freeing the larvae to enter the human body and transmute into tiny worms that, over the next ninety days, grow into three-foot long vermicelli-like monsters. Then a cruel genetic trumpet sounds. The worms respond to the call by excreting acid to burn a path through their host’s body as they tunnel their way out of their human prison. The pain of this nine-month long exodus is excruciating.
Finally, to give purpose to the hellacious journey, once the worm pokes its head out of its human host, it causes an intense burning and itching that can only be soothed by immersing the infected body part in the local water source—at which point the creature releases thousands of tiny eggs back into the fetid mother water—completing the life-cycle of the Guinea Worm.
For thousands of years, villagers have suffered the pain and debilitating injuries caused by the Guinea Worm’s unspeakable and lengthy journey. Not knowing how to explain the presence of the pest, locals blamed the infected villagers for hosting the worm. According to legend, sinners bring the fiery monster upon themselves.
“Surely she’s an adulteress and that’s why her children are now being cursed.”
“He must have stolen from the village and now he’s paying the price.”
To add suffering to insult, the infected (and now maligned) villagers are unable to work for months on end, so great is their pain as the worm follows its nine-month path. Many starve. Children are unable to go to school, so they remain illiterate. And all of this pain and misery has been going on in parts of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa for thousands of years.
Eventually, the plight of the Guinea Worm came to the attention of scientists who figured out both its life cycle and the cure. It’s simple. Encourage villagers to filter the water and the larvae are eliminated. In cases where people are infected, keep them from washing in the water source. Either way you short-circuit the life cycle and the dreaded worm (which only grows in human beings) disappears in an evolutionary blink. Medicines are not effective. Surgery is out of the question. But get people to filter their water and not wash their sores in the water source, and the creature will become extinct.
As this horrible plight became more public, hundreds of medical professionals and change agents tried their best to eradicate the worm, but with little success. Simply telling people to filter the water proved insufficient. Locals didn’t trust the outsiders. And, of course, not soothing your burning sores in the water, once infected, called for a monumental act of self-discipline.
Twenty-five years ago, when experts at the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia turned their attention to the Guinea Worm plight, more than 3.5 million people from 20 countries were still infected. Here was the big question: what change strategy could they come up with that others had been unable to discover? What would it take to get 3.5 million people—along with their friends, family, and neighbors—to filter their water and keep infected villagers from washing their sores in the local water source?
Two years ago, we wrote about this indefatigable group of Carter Center change agents in our book Influencer. We told of how they had been creatively applying a variety of clever change methods. For instance, they learned to gain support from respected, local leaders. Otherwise, nobody trusted them. They used clever posters, created contests and awards (complete with slogan-bearing t-shirts), posted warning signs near the water source, and taught people how to effectively confront neighbors who didn’t follow the rules—to name but a few of their techniques.
By combining change methods, one upon another, the group slowly made progress. Person by person, village by village, country by country, the tiny band of Carter Center experts gradually eliminated the cursed beast. Then, just a few weeks ago, one of our contacts at the center invited us to a special event. The center would be holding a news conference followed by an awards ceremony and a gala. We eagerly booked our flights.
Two weeks later, as news cameras ran and reporters sat poised to take notes, former president Jimmy Carter entered the crowded room. He was beaming with joy.
“We’re proud to announce,” he enthused, “the complete eradication of the Guinea Worm in two new countries—Niger and Nigeria.” From there the former president went on to explain how these two countries have now joined 14 other nations that have completely eliminated Guinea Worm disease. Today, less than 1,800 cases remain.
All of this extraordinary progress has been made under the leadership of a mere handful of people who possess two important qualities. First, they have learned what it takes to both motivate and enable people all over the world to act differently. That makes them members of a rather elite group of true influencers. Second, they chose to apply their skills to millions of individuals who, for centuries, have endured incalculable suffering. All of this, of course, has been accomplished under horrific conditions, for modest salaries, and often far away from home.
Just imagine the good these intrepid change agents have done. If the sufferers who had been infected were to attend a gathering hosted by the Carter Center—say in the fashion of a wedding reception where people stand in line, greet one another, and talk briefly—you might overhear comments such as:
“Thank you, I’m able to work my farm for the first time in over a year.”
“Bless you, my children have now returned to school.”
This line of gratitude would run 24 hours a day—for more than 400 days! And this doesn’t include the millions of people who would have been infected but now won’t be.
When my partners and I first wrote about influencers, we were delighted to discover that when you become a truly effective change agent, you can succeed with the most intractable of problems. We learned challenges that have gone on for generations have been carefully reduced, even eliminated, in select pockets throughout the world.
However, it never occurred to us what might happen if someone applied these skills to something as important as disease eradication. In the case of the Guinea Worm, less than a dozen people (with the help of hundreds of agencies and tens of thousands of volunteers) have led a behavior-change revolution unlike any ever accomplished on earth. They’ve nearly eradicated a horrible disease. Within the next few years, they’ll have completely eliminated it.
I take my hat off to these dedicated, talented, selfless people. At a time when the news is filled with disasters, debacles, and disillusionment, it’s a delight to pause and reflect on the work of a handful of selfless heroes who make us all proud. I get goose bumps thinking about what they might do next.