A few weeks ago another little boy moved in to stay with my homestay family. Thomas, upon my inquiry into his age, replied, “they tell me I am 8 years old when I am in the village [where he comes from], but when I am in Kampala, they tell me I am 10. So I guess that could mean that I am 9.” Thomas comes from a village in the western district of Masaka, and is somehow related to my homestay mother. As is the way in Uganda, my family opens their home to anybody who needs a place to stay, and that is how Thomas came to live with my family.
Thomas’s story is a common one amongst Ugandan children, although his has a happy ending at least. My mother shared that Thomas’s mother was a young girl when she gave birth to him—maybe at 14 or 15 years old. She was not married and had not finished school, but her mother insisted that she finish her secondary school education. The father’s family did not want to take care of Thomas, so his mother’s mother took responsibility of him. According to my mother, Thomas’s grandmother was very old and somehow did not know how to or could not afford to properly care for him. She only fed him water and small amounts of food that everybody else ate. He was not breastfed for adequate time, and was shifted to a solid food diet very young. As he grew up, he became more and more unhealthy and steadily became malnourished. By the time he was about 5 years old, he and his grandmother came from their village to visit my homestay family in Kampala. My mother said that when he came in, he looked like he was only three years old, had a protruding belly, and ribs that poked through his chest. His skin was thin and showed signs of dehydration. “He looked like a lizard,” my mother shared, “his eyes were sticking out of his head and looked side to side as though he did not know where he was. Even his skin was like a lizard—it was pale and you could nearly see through it.”
The grandmother said that she had to leave for a minute to go buy something, and instead ran off back home, leaving Thomas in the hands of my family. Clearly, she knew that she could no longer care for him and hoped that my family could save him. My homestay father, however, was not convinced. He told my mother that this boy was going to die and she needed to return him home to his village so that he could die in his home. My mother held her ground and said she would care for this boy because he was family and she could not in good conscience send him home to die. She said, “just let him stay for one more week. At least he will be stronger then.” He stayed for the first week and she tried to convince him to eat food. He was not used to eating much, so he never wanted anything besides water, but eventually, he took more of her food and made a slow recovery. Every week she would convince my father to let him stay, and he lived in the home for a couple of months. By the time he had recovered, his mother decided to take him back to her village. He went away from my family, miraculously alive. A few years later, he has come back to stay with my family due to a variety of reasons: namely, lack of money, and so that he can attend school in Kampala. While the other children call my mother “jjaja,” or grandmother, he refuses and insists on calling her “mom” because he feels like she is actually his mother.
As I mentioned, though, Thomas’s story is quite a happy one compared to millions of other children who suffer from malnutrition in Uganda and throughout the world. I have read that sometimes up to 45% of children under five in a district in Uganda are malnourished, and many of these children do not have the opportunity like Thomas to recover. Families are often unaware of how to properly feed their children, and feeding children with HIV/AIDS is an even more challenging responsibility since they need even more nutrients and calories. While there are hospitals devoted to caring for malnourished children, they are often inaccessible to families living in rural areas. Or, even worse, these families might fear bringing their children to a hospital due to money or losing their children.
Malnutrition is a serious problem that should not exist in a world where we have plenty of resources to feed the entire population (though who knows how long that will last). It is a problem due to underdevelopment and global inequality, lack of education and information about proper feeding techniques, extreme poverty, and is compounded by the fact that many families simply have more children than they can afford to support. Furthermore, many families with malnourished children rely on their agricultural production to feed themselves, so if a crop is poor, or the season is ending, children will not have as much access to adequate food. In reality, there needs to be huge shift in thinking and advocacy in order to see any real change in malnutrition in Uganda. Families need to practice family planning, and have only as many children as they can support. HIV/AIDS needs to be dramatically reduced, especially from mother-to-child transmission. Food security needs to be improved, and Uganda needs to implement some sort of welfare or food stamps program. Finally, healthcare needs to be free.
Okay, so maybe I am dreaming, but these all sound like plans that could and probably would end malnutrition in Uganda (along with poverty, overpopulation, HIV/AIDS, and a variety of other issues). Of course, in order to implement such plans, a country needs to be financially stable and somewhat developed to fund these programs. In time though, I am hoping Uganda can pull through.
~ Kasey Wooten ’11
Editor’s Note: This entry was first published on The 195.com, and is re-printed here with the permission of the author.