Fighting hunger in ravaged lands

From the comfort of western life, it may be very difficult to imagine the stories I am about to tell because they are hard for me to imagine and I am seeing them unfold. I will try to describe the situations to the best of my abilities...

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of stories by Tricia Newport. The was written while the author was in Africa. This is the first time it has been published.

Democratic Republic of Congo

From the comfort of western life, it may be very difficult to imagine the stories I am about to tell because they are hard for me to imagine and I am seeing them unfold. I will try to describe the situations to the best of my abilities, because the people who are living these lives deserve to have their stories told.

Here in the northern Congolese village of Dingila, Medecins Sans Frontieres is supporting the pediatric ward of a hospital as well as two health centres.

In Dingila, malnutrition is not at a critical level, however; there are still some very serious cases, usually coming from far away. This week a woman walked 150 kilometres through the jungle to bring her child to the hospital. When I saw the child wrapped in a little blanket, I couldn’t believe that she actually existed. She was the most malnourished child I have ever seen – more than 12 months old and only three kilograms.

Her legs were thinner than my pinkie finger. She was so little that my brain went into overdrive, thinking of all of the critical interventions which might be needed. We quickly assessed if she was in shock, or dehydrated … in the end she wasn’t any of those things, she was just horribly sick with malaria but she wanted to eat.

She was like a sick, hungry little bird in a nest.

We started feeding this tiny sick bird with therapeutic milk and treating her malaria, but it stayed questionable whether she would live. It is now five days later and she is still alive – fragile, but alive and sipping on her therapeutic milk. Everyday I tell the mother that we are doing the best that we can do for her little one – and she always replies that medicine and food only decide so much, and that God also plays a role in the decision making.

Being a western-trained nurse, I am pained by this response, pained at being reminded that we are not in full control of the outcome, pained at knowing we have our limits, and pained that an innocent child needs to become malnourished in the first place.

There is a very remote village northeast of here, called Banda, which was ravaged by the Lord’s Resistance Army last March.

Medecins Sans Frontieres had been working there for a number of years. During the LRA attack, two MSF expatriate staff and two of the sons of local MSF staff were kidnapped.

Medecins Sans Frontieres was forced to flee Banda, along with the majority of the village’s population. Within a number of hours, the kidnapped Medecins Sans Frontieres staff managed to escape the LRA, but the two boys were not as lucky.

Since that time, the people who remained in Banda were left without any help from outside. Due to the security situation, no NGO could go near the village.

Although maany people managed to escape Banda and fled elsewhere, many others that were in more precarious situations outside of the village moved into Banda, as the outskirts were much less safe.

In the last few weeks we have heard reports that the nutritional situation in Banda was getting out of hand so, after trying our best to assess the security of the area, this week we flew into the village for a day to assess the nutritional situation.

We took with us a local Medecins Sans Frontieres nurse and driver who work here with us, but who had escaped from Banda last March.

To return with them was an experience more emotional than my words can describe. To escape, they walked the 200 kilometres through the jungle to Dingila. Now they returned for the day in a plane trip that takes only 25 minutes.

As we touched down on the little airstrip, which doubles as the road into the village, it seemed that the entire village had turned out to welcome the two back.

Our nurse had believed her mother had died during the attacks – but there she was on the airstrip, proudly waiting to welcome her daughter home. It was incredible to watch. And as we drove to the assessment site on dirt bikes, the people chased after us crying out for the two returned people.

Our nutritional survey consisted of measuring the middle-upper-arm circumference of every child available, between six months and five years of age. We divided the group into local people, and those displaced from the outskirts of the village.

Just looking at the two groups the results were obvious.

The survey showed that there was severe malnutrition in the area, particularly amongst the displaced people, and that further intervention was essential.

The nutritional problem is partially caused by the lack of access to the fields. All of the animals in the village were eaten months ago, and the LRA had burned most of the fields. The few fields that exist are used by the local people, so the displaced people have no place to grow food, and even if they did they have no tools … and the security on the outside on the village is still extremely precarious as the LRA pass by regularly.

As we prepared to come home on the plane after the day of nutritional screening, our driver and nurse said their farewells once again to their families – and they boarded the plane with a skinny 11-year-old boy, the son of one of the Medecins Sans Frontieres staff who had been kidnapped from Banda by the LRA last March. After having been held captive for eight months by one of the most brutal rebel groups ever, he escaped on January 5 and had made his way back to Banda. Now he was boarding the Medecins Sans Frontieres plane – the first plane ride of his life – to join his mom who lives in the same village as us.

As we landed his eyes filled with tears – and he said that at last, he believes God has finally heard him.

I hope that all of the other people whose lives have been ravaged here can say that soon.

Tricia Newport is a nurse who lives in Whitehorse.

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