Starting at the end of 2011, a nutrition crisis gripped the Sahel belt that would ultimately affect part or all of nine countries—Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, the Gambia, Mali, Mauritania, the Niger, Nigeria and Senegal. An entire subregion suffered from poor rainfall and failed harvests.
In the first warning of this crisis in December 2011, UNICEF stated that over 1 million children would need treatment for life-threatening severe acute malnutrition.
A UNICEF progress report released in December says that more than 850,000 children are expected to have received lifesaving treatment for severe acute malnutrition across the nine countries during the course of 2012.
The response has been one of the biggest nutrition responses ever conducted, and a catastrophe has been averted. It does, however, underline that there will always be children who, for a variety of reasons, may not be reached. In the end, greater safety for vulnerable children is secured by better provision of health and other social services.
Bitkin, Guera, Chad (November 18, 2012) — Toma Daboubou, 22, lives with her four children and husband in a village with a backdrop of rocky, ochre hills. The dirt road leading to her village sees daily traffic of cows, camels, goats, donkey drawn carts, and groups of women walking with freshly harvested peanuts balanced on their heads.
Toma's family subsists mainly on crops of peanuts, maize, beans and sesame seeds, but Toma’s husband has also had to seek itinerant jobs as a driver in the nearest town. Right now he hasn't been able to find much work so the family struggles to put food on the table. Says Toma, "Last year was very difficult. All the crops came to nothing. The little that came the locusts ate."
Today, Toma is walking in the middle of a group of women with her 13-month-old baby girl Sadie snugly strapped to her back. She has a three hour long walk ahead of her to reach a new nutrition center that has been opened with UNICEF's support. Baby Sadie started to become sick and malnourished around three months ago. Worried about what to do, Toma, like many mothers across the Sahel, turned to a traditional healer. The healer prescribed a remedy of roots and leaves, but Sadie didn’t get better, and Toma began to get scared. "I thought she was going to die," she says.
Toma first heard about the nutrition center when a team of health workers visited her village to screen children for malnutrition. Now, Toma is walking there for Sadie's weekly check-up. "I brought my child here when she was coughing and vomiting. This health center is very good. I have brought her four times already. She is a lot better but still coughs a bit."
When she arrives, Toma and the other mothers she came with sit down together to wait in line for their children to be seen by health workers. Over a loudspeaker, a health worker explains the benefits of good hygiene and other health practices the mothers can implement at home: using a mosquito net, using bleach to sterilize water, and how to avoid cholera. The health worker holds up a picture of different foods that mothers can feed their babies after six months of exclusive breastfeeding. The women nod in agreement, and ripples of ‘uh-huh’ break out as they show their agreement with the approach. It's a beautiful scene of camaraderie and shared learning.
Reaching the front of the line, Toma hands Sadie to a health worker who puts her into the weighing apparatus. In the last three weeks, Sadie has put on nearly a whole kilo and Toma is beaming with relief and happiness. "I feel these centers can give our children life." says Toma. "I realized that the first time I went to the center. She wasn’t eating before and now, since coming to the center, she is."
After having Sadie's height measured and visiting the nurse for a consultation, Toma collects a week's ration of ready-to-use therapeutic food for Sadie. It’s dinnertime when Toma reaches home. With Sadie on her lap, she prepares the family’s meal, chopping up okra and peeling peanuts that she has gathered from their small garden. Sadie crawls off to play with a scrap of okra. "She couldn’t sit before, she couldn't play. Now she does all those things” says Toma. Asked whether she has any questions for us, Toma replies with a message. "This is a message to these people who have helped us," she says. "First I want to greet them. They helped save the lives of children in our country here."