Sweltering. Exhausted. Dehydrated. Dripping sweat. Shaking with lack of energy. Feet blistered and rubbed raw. Recovering from sickness. It was the end of another long day.
For the past 6 days I’ve been involved in conducting a survey to assess malnutrition rates in Uror county. This has involved getting up at 5:45am, having a bucket shower by torch light, before meeting my team to head into the bush. Too early for breakfast (no bread or cereal here, breakfast is sweet potato or fried doughnut prepared by our cooks over a fire, and isn’t ready till 8am). I meet with the team of local extension workers that I’m leading, check everyone’s ok and ready for the day, that we have our equipment (weighing scales, measuring board, clipboard, referral forms etc) and we head out into the bush.
Some days the villages we visited were a 2 hour drive from the base right through the middle of scrub land. No road but tall grass, swampy marshes and driving over trees to reach remote villages. When there, the car leaves us and we go looking for the village elder to seek permission to conduct our survey in his village. If he agrees (we’ve not had a negative response yet), we begin by locating the middle of the village.
From there we spin a pen which points us in the direction we must head to start our survey. We reach our first household. We then have a series of questionnaires to fill in finding out information about breastfeeding, food security, mortality rates and malnutrition rates. We weigh and measure every child in that household under-5 years. Any with signs of malnutrition are referred to our feeding centres where they’ll receive nutritional supplements until they reach a healthy weight for their age and size. Each questionnaire can take between 15-30minutes to complete for each household. We then move onto the next. And households are not close together. They can be a good 10minute walk between each household if you’re unlucky. We have to collect data for 16 households each day.
It’s hot. 39 degrees in the shade. Carrying packed lunch is not possible (no bread in the bush), but we have a packet of biscuits and a can of warm soda to keep us going. Just. I wasn’t prepared for this. My shoes are rubbing a blister which is becoming infected.
We finish and then may have to wait for an hour for the car to come and pick us, depending on the logistics of the day. We get back to base exhausted, my team leave for their sleeping place for the night, I eat dinner, head for another much-needed bucket shower before sitting down to enter data that we’ve collected for the day into the computer system. 11pm, crash into bed.
Two days before the survey began, I was up at night vomiting. Some sickness bug which knocked me out for a day. So all in all, I am done for. Yes, the days are good. We’ve collected the data needed, I’ve enjoyed being out of the office, I’ve had jokes with my team and held many a gorgeous baby. But by the end of the day, my energy is zapped and I can barely string a sentence together.
I’m telling you this so that maybe you can have some sympathy for what I’m about to tell you next.
Day 4. Sweltering. Exhausted. Dehydrated. Dripping sweat. Shaking with lack of energy. Feet blistered and rubbed raw. Recovering from sickness. It was the end of another long day.
Our car has just arrived to pick us up. I’m shattered and looking forward to that bucket of water waiting for me back at base so I can shower and somewhat wash the paste off dust and sweat that is covering me. The day has been long and we’ve referred 8 children to the feeding centre because of malnutrition.
We’re just packing up our height board and putting the weighing scales into the rucksack. When a young child appears. She’s stick thin, ribs protruding and belly rounded. Her legs are like pencils and I wonder how they can hold her upright. But I’m tired, so tired. Measuring her weight and height in order to then complete a referral form would take another length of time. We’ve collected our data, got the figures we needed to get. We’re ready to go. We don’t need any more children. I regret it deeply, but I looked the other way. I ignored this precious little one.
And now in hindsight, I’m so grateful for my team who are much stronger than me. Khor goes over to her. He bends down and starts talking to her in Nuer language. He pulls out his packet of biscuits and hands her one. Then he turns to me and says ‘this one is malnutrition’. And I sigh. At that moment, I’m irritated that he noticed. Irritated that he’s made the day longer. Irritated with the child for appearing at that moment. I grumpily pull the weighing scales back out from the rucksack as another team member starts setting up the height board again. We measure and weigh the child, and check her MUAC (middle upper arm circumference). Her muac score is less than 12cm. Her weight for height Z-score indicates she has severe acute malnutrition. We locate a relative who tells us she’s an orphan and has just been brought to the village after staying with another relative. We complete a referral form and instruct the relative to take the girl to the feeding centre tomorrow. The relative looks grateful for the support. The girl sits, still sucking on the biscuit Khor gave her earlier. We pack up again and we leave. And I’m still grumpy.
It’s not until the next morning as I’m washing ready for the new day ahead that I stop to think about this little girl. I stop dead in my tracks and I wonder, when did it ever become about the numbers and the figures and getting all the data correctly? I’ve been here for not even 3 months and already I’m sucked into the donor way of looking at things – they want the facts, they want the numbers and percentages, they want the bigger picture. Yes, this information is so important, but at the expense of the individual? It doesn’t need to be. You can have both. You can collect the data and have time for the little girl at the end of a long day. There is no excuse for ignoring her. I’m tired? So what. Not good enough. What have I to complain about?
I showered, thinking about this little girl and thinking about Jesus. Thinking about how he would have stopped for her, drawn her near to him and showed her love. No matter how exhausted or drained he was. Lessons to be learned.