I was four when I first traveled to Africa. My family had just moved to Nairobi and I quickly fell in love. In my eyes Kenya was perfect. It was the land of beautiful birds, large lizards, an abundance of other amazing wildlife, and warm weather. When we picked up and left for New York, five years later, I spent my first year saving to go back!
Kenya taught me an important life lesson. I realized from a young age that some people, through no fault of their own, are faced with great disadvantages. I saw the devastating effects of poverty and the ripple effects that violence and instability can bring to a country.
Years later, that lesson became even more apparent when, as a recent college graduate and new member of the Concern team, I was deployed to N’Djamena, Chad for three months. I was back in a developing country but this time fully immersed in tackling poverty. The experience opened my eyes once again, as I met and talked with families living in displacement camps in eastern Chad and heard about their struggles and the strife that had led them there.
Kenya taught me an important life lesson. I realized from a young age that some people, through no fault of their own, are faced with great disadvantages.
Fast forward seven years, to my most recent trip to Uganda, in October 2014. I travelled with two wonderful couples — long time friends of Concern, board member, Jim McShane and his wife Kelly, as well as author and journalist Roger Thurow and his lovely wife Anne. Along with Mary O’Neill, Concern’s Country Director in Uganda, we travelled bumpy and dusty red roads, passing bare-footed children in school uniforms, along with the hustle and bustle of small market towns and the occasional roadside vendor selling grilled meats and roasted bananas.
At the White Nile we were welcomed by a troop of baboons and eventually we arrived at our destination in northeast Uganda. Nestled in a stunning area full of rolling hills and wide savannahs, Karamoja has for decades been beset by violent conflict, high levels of poverty, and food insecurity.
The statistics of the semi-arid and poverty stricken region are shocking. Compared with the national under-five mortality rate of 90/1,000, Karamoja’s rate is 153/1000. The maternal mortality rate is almost double the rate of the national average. Latrine usage is at a low of 3.6%, compared with the national usage rate of 68%. And nearly 80% of the population of Karamoja live in poverty, more than triple the national average of 25%.
For a number of reasons, it has long been considered a ‘no-go’ zone. Famine has struck the region, and looms as a constant threat, and cattle raiding among warrior tribes has been a means for survival, with violence peaking in the 1980’s as the Karamojong and other groups gained access to automatic weapons.
Today, Concern is working side by side with the Karamojong. Our lead partners are groups of strong and respected mothers that belong to Mother Care Groups (MCGs), an approach implemented by Concern and focused on behavior-changing activities around proper infant and young child feeding practices, the nutritional needs of pregnant and breastfeeding women, and improved consumption of nutrients. The primary objective is preventing malnutrition through preventative health care, and it’s part of a larger program called RWANU- Resilience, Wealth, Agriculture and Nutrition. Because of the high degree of community participation, this approach has proven an effective tool for lasting behavior change. Currently, Concern is reaching 23,377 mothers.
Spending the day with these women was an incredible experience. The group we met (“Ajokokipi Mother Care Group”) was comprised of 15 volunteer “Lead Mothers.” Each of these women is responsible for taking what they learn in trainings given by a Concern health worker, and in turn providing education and counseling for as many as 14 households. A Concern field coordinator provides supervision in order to ensure the effectiveness of the larger mother care group model.
These mothers were clearly empowered and motivated. After securing permission from their elders to use the space, we sat under the shade of a beautiful arching tree listening to their stories of how the curriculum and health facilities provided by Concern have impacted their lives.
Each of these women is responsible for taking what they learn in trainings given by a Concern health worker, and in turn providing education and counseling for as many as 14 households.
One woman, Alice Arukol, 30, explained how she used to deliver her children at home with the same knife used for cutting food , which caused potentially deadly infections. Since joining the program, her latest child was born in a health center and she experienced no complications.
Then there was 25-year-old Munyes Ester. Before becoming a “Lead Mother,” she would leave her young child, Rose Achia, at home while she collected firewood and went to the market. She didn’t realize the importance of breastfeeding. As a result, Rose was frequently sick and often plagued with diarrhea. She has learned to ensure the health of her second child, Loupe OKono, by bringing her everywhere. She seemed happy as she explained that Loupedoes not get sick as Rose did.
Koriang Dominic, a 25-year-old lead mother’s husband, told me how happy he was with his wife’s role. He noticed that their younger child is growing faster than their other two children, which he credits to his wife and the new ideas she’s brought back to their household, such as providing more nutritious meals from the kitchen garden introduced by RWANU.
After our meeting, we passed a mobile health outreach clinic. Children with skinny arms and legs, and many with bulging stomachs, lined up one after the other as nurse fed them Vitamin A supplements and deworming tablets.
Almost half of all children in the developing world die before their fifth birthday because of lack of nutritious food and essential nutrients such as vitamin A and zinc, and many more suffer the lifelong impacts of undernutrition. Pregnant women who suffer from undernutrition are also at high risk of complications and even death.
The women, men and children I met have been born into lives of extreme poverty. Their education levels and good health and sanitation practices are very low. Low crop yields as well as low access to markets or income-generating opportunities create additional hardships. What’s especially tragic is the amount of preventable illnesses and deaths that occur there. In spite of their tremendous hardships, I heard so much laughter, singing, and dancing, and was greeted with many beaming smiles.
The hope that they saw in Concern gave me hope, too.