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Malawi, May 2015: UNICEF response to child malnutrition and recurrent flooding [Field diary]

UNICEF Malawi/2015
© UNICEF Malawi/2015
Growth monitoring and nutrition screening at Tizora Grain Bank Camp.

By Vitowe Harazi, Nutrition Consultant, UNICEF Malawi

May 2015, Malawi – I recently worked on the emergency response program in the flood-affected districts of Southern Malawi. Starting from December 2014 Malawi had already been experiencing heavy rains, but by the 13th of January 2015, the affected districts were declared disaster areas. As a nutrition consultant at UNICEF Malawi, I was part of the first UNICEF Malawi emergency response team deployed to the Lower Shire districts. I remember before leaving the office, our Country Representative, Mahimbo Mdoe, reminding us of what the E in UNICEF stands for – Emergency! A strong message that part of our mandate is to respond to disasters. The purpose of my trip was two-fold: to use my nutrition expertise and support the affected people in all related aspects on the ground.

I have travelled to the Lower Shire on several occasions and the journey down the hill opens up into a beautiful landscape. But this time, tears came to my eyes, as I saw the extent of damage the floods had caused. The mountain scenery was replaced by murky water, washed away houses and angry clouds. Along the roadside one could see several tents which the IDPs had started calling home.

One of our first stops was Bangula camp, in Nsanje district, which was one of the worst hit areas during the floods. The IDPs needed a lot of support: food and nutrition, education, water, sanitation and health and much, much more. As a nutrition officer, the first thing that I did was to go around and assess the type, quality and source of food the IDPs had access to. The district was mostly providing maize flour, the staple diet in Malawi, but it did not include all the essential six food groups which are necessary for children’s growth, pregnant and lactating women. It was common to see hungry adults sharing a plate with equally hungry children – there never seemed to be enough food. This prompted me to liaise with the district council officials for food support for the IDPs, as well as lobby with partners like WFP, to fast track the delivery of food supplies. 

UNICEF Malawi/2015
© UNICEF Malawi/2015
Malnourished children at Tizora Grain Bank Camp receive therapeutic food.

I managed to mobilise the district health teams to introduce nutrition screening in the camps and ensure timely provision of services to malnourished children and pregnant and lactating women as per UNICEF global mandate. It was exciting to see health workers providing nutrition services in the camps and those eligible receiving treatment, including therapeutic food (thanks to UNICEF and WFP). Having a background in psychosocial support, allowed me to interact directly with mothers who were breastfeeding before the floods, but due to the psychological impact of the floods could no longer do so. Through my guidance I was able to encourage these women to continue breastfeeding even under these dire circumstances for the sake of their children’s health.

There were some sad moments too. I remember during one of the visits to the camps, a 3 year old girl child (name withheld) who was severely malnourished and quickly referred to the district hospital for further treatment. After four days, the child’s condition seemed to be improving and there was hope that she would be discharged. Unfortunately two days later her condition worsened and all efforts to save the child’s life proved futile and she died. This was a painful experience as I was there when the child was first identified at the camp. This is just one of the scenarios, but there were plenty of other challenges including lack of transportation to ferry patients from the camps to hospitals, IDPs going hungry for days and children with a passion to go to school but failing to due to lack of clothing and of course - hunger. However, the weekly district emergency cluster meetings were helpful and ongoing discussions often led to positive resolutions to the issues at hand.

I really feel I have been able to make a difference during this emergency effort. The best reward was the grateful smiles of the IDPs whom I could personally see receiving support and being reminded that people are genuinely concerned about their plight. They say in a crisis there is always a silver lining. UNICEF Malawi, our numerous partners and my interaction with IDPs in the camps has made me realize that having a career that allows you to provide support in dire circumstances is the best career I could ever dream of. 




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