A week after Mohammed was born, he was abandoned by his parents and left in the care of an aunt who was already struggling to raise nine children.
“Milk is expensive and it is very hard to feed them all,” the aunt, Assetou Diallo, said as she sat in front of her home, a one-room shack next to a busy dirt road on the outskirts of the Malian capital of Bamako.
This year has been particularly difficult, the 35-year-old said. The drought killed the family’s modest crops, grown in a small garden nest to the house, and the price of food has skyrocketed.
The children were brought to an International Rescue Committee-supported health clinic where they were immediately placed on an emergency feeding program consisting of milk and peanut paste fortified with minerals and vitamins. Mohammed and Mariam were also treated for malaria and pneumonia. After two month’s treatment, the children gained 4.5 pounds.
“Their lives were in real danger,” said the IRC’s Dr. Abdourhamane Soumana, who helped treat the children. “Severe malnutrition of this kind can also severely affect a child's intellectual development.”
Millions of children in Mali and the Sahel region of West Africa are believed to be physically and intellectually stunted as a result of poor diet and malnutrition over many years.
Overall, the United Nations estimates that some 18 million people in the Sahel do not get enough to eat on a daily basis, a situation that has been exacerbated by political insecurity and three severe droughts in the region since 2005.
Assetou Diallo has now learned to identify early signs of malnutrition. She feeds her youngest children fortified peanut paste and tries as best she can to give them vegetables. But the root problem is, as it often is, poverty. Assetou’s husband is an unemployed carpenter and the family lives on handouts from caring neighbors.
“If I get a little bit of money I buy charcoal that I then resell in the market,” she says. “But it’s never enough.”
Tasha Gill, who runs the IRC’s programs in Mali, says that initiatives like the health clinic’s feeding program can save lives on a short term emergency basis but that they need to be complemented by long-term sustained efforts.
“Looking to the future we are planning programs that will help families to survive the immediate crisis but also better weather future emergencies,” she said. “Programs that help people start businesses and teach economic skills are essential so that parents don’t have to choose between food, school and health care, but can provide the basics for their children to grow in safety and dignity.”
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