BURKINA FASO, MAY 2012: There are no proper words to describe the heartbreaking sight of a malnourished child. No image on TV can prepare you for the sheer lightness of their bodies, their miniscule wrists, their oversized, slightly bulging heads; the breathtaking shock of realising that the cute baby who looks newborn is actually nearly two years old.
Malnourishment is not something that enters our world very often. Ours is a place where 60 stone teenagers must be hoisted out of their homes by the local fire service because they no longer fit through their front doors (“neighbours had noticed food staff coming and going,” said the article in The Independent earlier this week, “with everything from burgers to an array of Indian and other takeaways delivered on a regular basis.”). It’s a place where five year-old girls worry themselves silly about being thinner, aspiring to a ‘body ideal’ that’s estimated to be not physically achievable by 95 percent of the population.
Funnily enough, this body image is altogether more achievable in Burkina Faso, where many village women have beautifully thin figures, long legs, tiny waists and big heads, in their colourful printed boubous, and around 35 percent of Burkinabé children are stunted. I’ve always thought it ironic that while one half, my half, of the world is preoccupied with eating less, losing weight, exercising more and being as thin as possible, the rest are struggling to find enough food every day and spend a large amount of their time exhausted and hungry from the physical labour that makes up their daily routines; pounding millet (carefully copy the instructor in your zumba class and you have it), carrying water or walking a few miles to the local emergency nutrition centre.
No wonder, then, that the plump, smiling, shining lady nurses whom I met at one such centre in Djibo, northern Burkina Faso, giggled proudly as I took their photos.
“No, she is definitely not malnourished!” laughed Nurse Rosaire Toe, patting a beautiful, rounded young lady in red gingham on the shoulder as the others roared with laughter.
It is these ladies, who somehow manage to be at once jovial, tender and reassuring, who run the centre, welcoming hundreds of young mothers every week who queue for hours to receive their rations of Plumpy Nut. Plumpy Nut is a highly nutritious form of peanut paste that has been developed to treat malnourished children, and comes in little red and silver packets that the ladies chuck into plastic buckets brought by the women. Then the ladies weigh the babies and measure their mid-upper arms with the simple colour-coded measuring band that tells them if the child has moderate acute malnutrition (a circumference of less than 12.5 cm) or severe acute malnutrition (a circumference of less than 11 cm). Put simply, when this band goes into the red, the circumference of that baby’s arm is the size of my middle and index fingers.
“Sometimes I see these babies and it makes me want to cry,” said the kindly Nurse Toe. “It’s very difficult. We have a huge problem with malnourishment at the moment in this area.”
The baby whose hand I held was called Abdrama. He was the tiniest baby I’d ever met and I thought he was a newborn, but Nurse Toe told me that he was actually 20 months old and bordering on malnourishment. She unfolded his little printed wrap and showed me his wrinkled little bottom, not plump and dimpled as a baby’s should be, but sagging, the skin hanging off his tiny body. It was one of the most heartbreaking things I have ever seen.
As if the food crisis weren’t bad enough, The Hunger Season has arrived in Burkina Faso and across the Sahel region of West Africa. I have capitalised this term because it seems to me that, as The Hunger Games flashes relevantly across our cinema screens in our fattened side of the world, the reality deserves at least this grammatical importance.
The Hunger Season is that lean time from March until the next harvest in September when food is always scarce across the parched, water-scarce Sahel. This year, after consecutive bad harvests and the occasional devastating flood, there is nothing left. There are no supermarkets to raid and no emergency tins of beans in cupboards. There is, quite simply, nothing, and when the rains come in July, the roads will turn to mud and the lorries bearing boxes of Plumpy Nut will be unable to get in or out.
Thousands of refugees from Mali need food too; those surviving in the camps surrounding villages near Djibo. The babies, hundreds of them, have an uncertain future. I find, when I meet the mothers, that all the rest, the facts and the figures and the politics, go out of the window and I just want them all to be fed. These people are hungry and they need food. I guess it really isn’t all that complicated.
Cases of severe child malnutrition always increase during the hunger season, said Dr Unni Krishnan, head of emergency response for children’s rights NGO Plan International, when I spoke to him, still emotional, back in the Burkina capital of Ouagadougou.
“You see, food and time is running out.”
First published in The Huffington Post, June 1 2012