It’s 23 years since I first sat surrounded by mothers and babies in a World Vision health and nutrition clinic. That was in a tent made from goat’s wool in the desert of Mauritania, west Africa – I was logistician in my first overseas job with World Vision, making sure the medical supplies, vaccines etc got to the right place at the right time.
I must have been in similar settings 100 times or more in scores of countries since then and it never stops being the most wonderful human experience.
Today I got my first taste of this in Afghanistan. In the small back room of a traditional mud and straw house in the midst of 17 mothers and their crawling, crying and toddling babies while community health workers weighed and measured, taught and treated. I just wish I could capture and carry with me the colour, noise, smiles, hopes, fears, love and laughter for days when life and work are tough.
Foundations for life
Helping mothers to bring children safely and healthily through their first few months and years remains the heartbeat of much of World Vision’s work worldwide. A healthy start to life is the foundation on which children’s lives are built.
In a child’s first thousand days, if she is malnourished it will affect the rest of her life, massively limiting her mental and physical potential. That’s for those that survive. Of course in Afghanistan, and far too many other places, there are many, many children who do not make it past their first, or second, or fifth birthdays.
All over the world, World Vision works as the glue between mothers and children in communities and the lowest levels of the local health service, itself often distant and poorly functioning. Bridging that gap can have a dramatic, transforming effect.
Just two weeks ago, 18 year old Halima brought her 18-month-old daughter Nasima to this nutrition clinic. Nasima was severely malnourished and was sick all the time – her mum didn’t know what to do. Halima proudly watched while Nasima is weighed and, having gained 1kg, is safely in the well-nourished zone.
“They’ve taught me how to take care of her so much better, she now eats rice and vegetables every day and I make sure things are hygienic,” Halima tells me. In this dry, dusty village mothers have traditionally not supplemented breastfeeding with any other food until they’re two years old. Of the 17 babies that have been coming here each day for the last two weeks, 14 were malnourished at the start.
Happier and healthier
This isn’t just a short term, emergency intervention though. The community health worker has worked alongside a local mother Rana who was already feeding her daughter a nutritious, well-balanced diet of lentils, peas, spinach, rice or bread and occasional meat.
Beautiful Atefa at 12 months already looks happier, healthier and better developed than many of the others. All these foods are available locally and, now that the mothers know how to prepare them from early weaning porridge at six months through to more solid foods by two, and have seen the difference it makes, there is no going back.
The community midwife, Sabera, is an amazing woman. Clearly loved and respected by the mothers, she takes a basic kit of medicines out of her little safe box and confidently explains how she uses them and when she refers women to the nearest health centre, which is where she also receives training and meets other community health workers each month. Sabera’s family has been visibly impacted by the 30+ years of conflict that Afghanistan has faced. Her husband lost both his legs and one hand during the war. Despite this, and being a mother of seven and grandmother to more, Sabera also heads up the local women’s Shura (council)!
Today is also the international day of the midwife. Of the 17 babies here this morning, only three had been delivered by a midwife as it was too far to the city. Now they have a midwife at the local health centre only an hour’s walk away – one of the graduates from the provincial midwifery training supported by World Vision that we saw on Monday.
Khotera, World Vision’s own midwife who supports the newly trained and deployed community midwives, tells me: “I really love my job. There’s nothing like seeing the joy of a mother rejoicing at the birth of her baby.” I completely agree, remembering those precious moments when my wife Mischka gave birth to each of our four beautiful children – Caitlin, Joshua, Maia and Luke.
As I leave with the smiles and waves of the women and their children behind me, I can’t help a feeling of sadness as I contrast this with the tragedy of the tiny boy who we watched dying so quietly in the neonatal unit on Monday. I wonder how his mother, who I never got to meet, is coping and pray for her again.