A mother's appeal


October 17, 2011

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    Whitish hair and an edema on his leg are indications that 18-month-old Abdirizaq is malnourished. Photo: Bija Gutoff/Mercy Corps Photo: baby_in_gashamo_1000.jpg

We’re outside the Mercy Corps office in Gashamo, Ethiopia – a bone-crunching nine hour drive from Jijiga, the regional capital. It’s early in the morning, and the noisy generator is cranking out its last few minutes of power before we shut it down for the day. Here we only have the electricity we create with our own generator, and that only at night. There’s no cell service, no internet. The guys who work in our office here are at the front lines of Mercy Corps’ work to ease hunger and suffering in remote rural Ethiopia. They make do with very little in the way of comfort. The only critters that seem to thrive in this environment are the cockroaches: I’ve never seen bigger ones.

Our team is loading up the jeep with the weekly allotment of supplies for the mobile health clinic site we’ll be visiting today: antibiotics, analgesics, deworming medicine, vitamin A (a common deficiency), soap, mosquito nets for pregnant and lactating women, cough syrup, fortified cereal, Plumpy’nut, cooking oil.

A small crowd of neighborhood kids and moms have gathered to watch us make our preparations.

In recent days, there have been one or two rainfalls here. That seems like good news. So I ask our health and nutrition manager Siyat Gure if the rain means the need will lessen.

“No,” he says, with an emphatic shake of his head. “In fact we’re seeing the need increasing.”

Mercy Corps is focusing on serving the communities in the Gashamo area because they’ve been hit so hard by the drought. With a population of more than 95,000, he estimates that 80% are affected by the dry spell. And once the pastoralist food chain is disrupted – rain makes grass grow, animals eat grass, animals produce the milk and meat people consume – it will take time to re-establish the productivity of the land and animals that support human life.

Siyat closes the back of the jeep with a firm snap. We’re ready to go.

But first, one woman comes forward from the crowd. She’s Zainab Harir, and she holds up her baby, one-and-a-half year old Abdirizaq. She’s worried about him. Siyat quickly gets out the simple device we use to measure a baby’s upper arm, a reliable gauge of infant malnutrition. He points to the below-normal indicator. “This baby is severely malnourished,” he says. “You see the whitish hair? You see the edema?” He presses a finger into the baby’s lower leg, where the imprint stays. “This baby needs to be admitted to our stabilization center right away.”

After a few words with Abdirizaq’s mom, we have to say goodbye. It’s time to visit the mobile clinic, where many more mothers and babies are waiting for our help.