With more than 20 years working in nutrition and communication behaviour change, I have had the opportunity to work within many communities and examine different cultures and characteristics. My experiences have also taught me that much effort, time and shared sympathy is needed to change an entrenched habit. As a member of UNICEF’s emergency response programme team, I am utilizing this knowledge to help benefit the 10 provinces, in the Central Highlands, South Central and Mekong Delta regions, affected by the worst cases of drought and salt water intrusion in decades.
I have visited the Central Highlands numerous times during the course of my work. That day, as a graduate, l felt something new and strange, which only enthusiasm and youth could overcome the inadequacy of experience and knowledge. As with the lyrics of Nguyen Cuong’s famous song, “Just so close, just so far”, the people of the Central Highlands always welcome you with a gentle smile. More often than not they are carrying huge baskets filled with agricultural products and sometimes a baby sleeping on its mother’s back. It is hard to forget the immense expanses of green, with rubber forests, white coffee flowers and especially the red soil of the Highlands which create a very specific signature of the land and people.
As a result of UNICEF’s emergency response, A Ti was identified as having moderate acute malnutrition, while the youngest A Ty was detected as having severe acute malnutrition after screening on 30 August 2016. Y Po’s family is in a difficult situation. Her husband must work all year round with cassava crops, although it has never been sufficient to feed the whole family. Life has become even tougher as the prolonged drought has seen crop yields plummet. At the moment, her family is still in debt by VND5 million (US$223), a large amount to repay. Y Po confided in me that it was unlikely this year’s cassava crops could help her repay her debt and buy food for the children.
I understood that with the fluctuating weather conditions, it was extremely difficult for Y Po and her husband to work the crops and take care of their children at the same time.
Spending most of her time taking care of her malnourished children, Y Po has no time to work. Thankfully nearly four months of continuous use of nutrition supplies supported by UNICEF and the Government of Japan has seen her second son Y Ty recover from severe acute malnutrition. Under dedicated guidance from medical staff, Y Po now knows how to use nutrition supplies for her child.
Knowing her children are gaining weight and getting rid of severe acute malnutrition, her eyes lit up with joy when she said: “I hope my children grow up healthy and I will try to bring my children to school so that they will not be poor like me”. I’m am also looking forward to a brighter future for her children. The whole social system is involved, bringing her simple desire closer to reality. It warmed my heart to see her eyes filed with love watching her sleeping baby still sucking her breast milk, her hands gently supporting her breast to give her baby every precious drop of milk with love and care.
Saying goodbye to Y Po’s family, the commune health worker took me to another family. Seen from the outside, the Y Thoat family house looked spacious compared to the surrounding houses.
A Loc is her only son. At home to care for the child, she noticed her son was a little thinner than other children. This timely detection opened the door for UNICEF’s emergency response programme to provide nutrition supplies to address this case of severe acute malnutrition.
“I am grateful for the hard work from doctors and I will be a better parent in the future thanks to Y Ngui (commune health worker). Now I understand my child was malnourished because I didn’t know how to feed him properly, I even think that other poorer families’ children grew up more healthy because they were blessed by god” she said.
I felt truly grateful to Y Thoat for her sincere appreciation of the village health workers, as I understood her as well as Y Po’s and other children in the Central Highlands will not miss on the golden opportunity to grow and flourish because of village health workers like Ms. Y Ngui.
She remembers the name of each child and considers Y Thoat as a family member. Another commune health worker, Ms Y Thuyen, does similiar meaningful work in La Don village, Dak Ro Ong commune, Tu Mo Rong district. Although Y Thuyen works each day on low wages, she brings enthusiasm to her work and feels responsible for the children she visits and enthusiastically guides Xe Dang ethnic minority mothers.
“I really love the children in the village and feel really heart-broken to see them malnourished. Thus, I will always work with mothers to care for children’s nutrition,” said Y Thuyen.
Leaving Kon Tum I know the verdant forests will return to the province as will those friendly smiles and children’s eyes will again brighten.
Story by Trinh Hong Son and Truong Viet Hung
Photo by Truong Viet Hung