By Jessica Mony
GUERA, Chad, 18 January 2013 - The village of Banda is a neat collection of mud huts, each marked with a boundary fence of sticks. Through the sticks peek the inquisitive faces of children, eager to see the visitors who have arrived.
One of those faces belongs to 2-year-old Adoun. He giggles and looks back to see where his mother Zenaba Issa is. He beams at her. She smiles back at him. Ms. Issa sits, surrounded by Adoun’s older siblings, four young boys and a girl, on a mat she wove herself.
Every day a struggle
The Issa family have struggled to eat each day since last year’s failed harvest. As head of the family, Ms. Issa alone bears this burden.
Ms. Issa’s husband left soon after Adoun was born. A few months ago, in the midst of the ‘hunger gap’ between harvests, Adoun became so weak that he wasn’t able to walk. “When he was born, he was very big for his age. Then, when he was older, and it was time for him to eat food, I didn’t have anything to feed him. He started getting diarrhoea and became every weak and skinny.”
Ms. Issa visited a traditional healer called a ‘marabou’. Adoun didn’t get better, and Ms. Issa got more and more worried.
A few weeks later, UNICEF staff came to the village to screen children for malnutrition. Adoun was referred to an outpatient centre that had been set up with support from the local government. There, Adoun was given ready-to-use therapeutic food and was monitored for two months by UNICEF-trained health workers.
Ms. Issa was given a mosquito net and soap, and was taught simple things she could do to prevent Adoun from becoming malnourished again.
Today, months after he was so weak he couldn’t walk, Adoun is an energetic, excitable toddler who hangs on his older brother’s every word.
And the rains bring hope for a better harvest this year.
Steeling themselves against the threat of hunger
For the most vulnerable families, like the Issas, the coming harvest could mean this year’s struggle for food is over. The hunger gap, however, comes every year. The threat of hunger is never far away.
Ms. Issa is relentless in her determination to provide for her family. When her husband left, she taught herself to weave mats, hats and baskets from wild grasses to sell at market. “I had to tighten the belt,” she says. “As you can see, it was very difficult for me. That’s why I learnt to weave and farm.” But, with everyone around her facing the same challenges of poverty, there are limited coping mechanisms. “My main purpose in life is to feed my children. That is all I can do,” she says. “I want to send my children to school, but I can’t afford to now.”
The strength and devotion of mothers like Issa saved countless children’s lives during the nutrition crisis in 2012. Thanks to the support of donors, partners and UNICEF, help was available for these mothers.
Setting up nutrition centres to reach the most vulnerable children not only helps avert preventable deaths, but it also means children like Adoun can grow up to be the generation that helps build the resilience of the country.