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Nutrition center triumphs over traditional healers in West Darfur

© Photo and text by David Tsetse/UNICEF Sudan/2012
Nabeel was severely malnourished when his mother brought him to the feeding center for treatment. He, like far too many malnourished children in Mornei, had first been taken to a traditional healer, almost costing him his life.

MORNEI, WEST DARFUR, July 2012. Mornei Village was once an ideal place to live. Set at the foot of a mountain, in the savannah of western Darfur and surrounded by miles of sparsely wooded flatlands, Mornei comfortably sustained its population. Today the village is transformed beyond recognition into one of the most densely populated camps in Darfur for those displaced by the conflict.

Once home to around 5,000, Mornei now shelters more than 74,000 souls who have fled the fighting that has devastated towns and villages across Darfur. A few lucky families have plastic sheeting on their huts in the massive sprawl of huts that hug the foot of the scorched mountain. Basic services are stretched to breaking point, children are painfully thin, their parents are weak, disease spreads quickly and tens of thousands of lives are at risk every day.

Khadija Dawood Ismail’s 16 month-old son Nabeel received emergency care at the centre in April this year after falling dangerously ill. “My baby boy became very sick with severe vomiting, a cough and diarrhea. We took him to the traditional healer who gave him tree roots to drink and burned his anus to stop the diarrhea. Nabeel was very sick and we feared he was dying. One of my neighbours told me to take him to the nutrition center and at first I was very hesitant because I had lost hope but she kept encouraging me to go."

Nabeel was admitted to the nutrition centre suffering from Kwashiorkor – an acute form of childhood protein-energy malnutrition. He had edema, skin lesions and a very poor appetite. After two weeks, he began to grow stronger. His edema disappeared and his appetite returned.

His 40 year-old mother has four other children at home, two of whom are under the age of five, and provides for them alone ever since her husband left the camp a year ago to look for work in Khartoum. The family survives on food aid and Khadija’s modest income as a casual worker.

Nabeel’s 11 year-old sister has had to drop out of school in order to help her mother with chores and caring for the other children. As she cuddles her little boy, free from pain at last, Khadija is very thankful that she heeded the advice of her neighbour. She won’t consult any traditional healers in the future, she says. “In our culture, we don’t believe in hospitals and nutrition center treatment. We usually depend on our traditional doctors to treat our sick children and most of them die. I advise all mothers to take their children to a nutrition center immediately if there are signs of sickness,” Khadija adds, holding Nabeel close.

Traditional healers in Mornei have always earned an income from treating sick children even though they often suffer from complications as a result of these traditional remedies.

"The tree roots that the healers give to the children often worsen their condition. Children are often dangerously ill by the time they arrive at the center,’ says Elhadi Ibrahim Mohammed, UNICEF’s nutrition officer.

Recognizing malnutrition as one of the most serious threats to Mornei’s population, UNICEF in its role as nutrition cluster lead, has set up emergency feeding programmes in collaboration with its humanitarian partners. In 2008, through the State Ministry of Health in West Darfur, UNICEF established a therapeutic feeding centre in Mornei, with a 23-bed capacity to treat the most severe cases. The feeding center is now managed by humanitarian partners, with UNICEF providing technical expertise and essential supplies. The partnership has delivered good results with severe acute malnutrition in the village decreasing from 4.1% in 2004 to 1.1% in 2011.

UNICEF will continue to work with government and other partners to make sure conditions in Mornei improve, and that children such as Nabeel have access to effective care and adequate nutrition. This can only be sustained with continued international support.



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