A mother’s greatest challenge

It was Elizabeth’s first time at the Tearfund feeding centre in Maar, South Sudan, when I met her. A 30-year-old mother with five children, she came because she had heard of other mothers in her village bringing their children here. On this particular day, Elizabeth was deeply concerned for her youngest child’s health — but she was also hopeful.

She told me that trying to look after her children is difficult, particularly finding food for her 10-month-old daughter. ‘Sometimes if my child is sick, and we can’t find any food, that defeats me. The children drink the milk from cows, but there is not enough. This is the challenge.’

A poor substitute

In South Sudan it is common for mothers to feed their infants with cow’s milk, as many fear they don’t have enough breast milk. However, babies can’t digest cow’s milk as easily as their mothers’ milk, and the cow’s milk is often mixed with contaminated water, causing babies to get sick and malnourished.

France Bégin, UNICEF’s Senior Nutrition Adviser, states that ‘If all babies are fed nothing but breast milk from the moment they are born until they are six months old, over 800,000 lives would be saved every year.’ According to data from UNICEF, babies who receive no breast milk at all in these kinds of contexts are seven times more likely to die from infections than those who receive at least some in their first six months of life.

A crucial intervention

At the feeding centre in Maar, Tearfund staff share knowledge and information like this with mothers, as well as assisting with their basic needs and those of their children. Severely malnourished people are treated each week, and fortnightly clinics are arranged for those who are moderately malnourished, as well as pregnant and lactating women and children under five. The treatment programme usually lasts for about 60 days.

The children are given packets of peanut paste called plumpy’nut, and pregnant and lactating mothers are given a blend of maize and soya fortified with other nutrients to make a porridge. The children’s height and weight are used to assess their nutritional status, determine the correct portion of plumpy’nut and ascertain when the child is ready to be discharged from treatment.

David Garang, a Tearfund Nutrition Extension Worker in Maar, tells us the overall feeling at the centre is a positive one: ‘The people here are not sad, because the programme that Tearfund has brought in has changed lives. Especially with malnutrition, people are responding well to the treatment.’

‘Today, we have discharged so many children who have recovered from malnutrition. I’m happy that we can show that the children in the programme are responding to their treatment.‘I’m feeling happy because we are doing some good here,’ says David.

‘We are saving lives, but we’re also equipping mothers and communities to prevent (malnutrition) from happening in the first place,’

A great impact

Approximately 80–90% of the malnourished children are discharged as cured at the end of the 60-day programme. David is understandably encouraged by this. ‘The mothers feel very happy when their children have been discharged, because the programme is understood and the community is involved in this programme,’ he says.

‘We are addressing malnutrition and saving lives, but we’re also equipping mothers and communities to prevent it from happening in the first place,’ says Josie Smith, Tearfund’s Programme Coordinator for the East Africa Crisis. ‘We do this through teaching infant feeding practices, providing advice on good hygiene and sanitation, and ensuring communities have clean water sources that are sustainably managed. With ongoing funding, Tearfund will be able to continue working among vulnerable communities in South Sudan.’

Given all this, I can understand how Elizabeth and others like her can find hope despite the many challenges. Let’s praise God and pray for this vital work.

Photos: Tom Price

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