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Mairi's story: feeding babies in Darfur

A woman in the right hand foreground of the photo in front of other adults sitting at tables© Info

Mairi Maguire, a Red Cross nurse, supervises a supplementary feeding centre being run by the British/Australian Red Cross in a camp for over 100,000 people who have been displaced by fighting to the remote town of Gereida, in South Darfur.  Red Cross feeding programmes are treating over 700 children under 5 a week for malnutrition in the camp.

“My job is to organise the supplementary feeding centre we’re running in the camp to treat malnourished children.

“When we take children onto the feeding programme at the centre we treat them for worms, give them medicine so that they don’t get anaemic, provide them with vitamin supplements and then give them a special food mix that’s the equivalent of about 1,500 calories a day.

“We see the children weekly to check on their progress.  They are discharged from the programme when, over a couple of consecutive weeks, they reach a healthy weight for their age and height.

Hundreds of children

“At the moment we’re seeing over 700 children a week and there are about 20 new admissions a day.  We see children of all ages, from 6 months to 10 years of age, although the ones that are most at risk and that we’re most concerned about are under 5. 

“Commonly children are at risk of malnutrition because of poor care practices.  Women here work extremely hard.  They have to go out of the camp to collect firewood and animal fodder. They know it’s dangerous but they have to do it.  Often while they’re out of the camp - and they can be gone for hours – an older sibling cares for the younger children.  Girls as young as 9 can be looking after a 2 or 3-year-old child.

“Over the last week we’ve been discussing as a team how we can aim an education programme at young carers to try to help them understand more about what is involved in caring for a child.  Even if mums want to care for their children they have so many other things they have to do.

Nutrition for infants

“When a woman has a baby it is usually breastfed for 6 months and is well nourished.  After that because of the poverty of the conditions and because people don’t really know what’s best for their child, children’s diets are usually very poor.  Often the only thing that a child gets after the age of 6 months is thin porridge, usually made with millet or sorghum.  That’s not high enough in nutritional value for a growing child.  So we have to try and teach the mothers to introduce other foods. 

“When the mother falls pregnant again, which is usually sometime between 18 months and 2 years later, the child is abruptly weaned.  Breastfeeding stops.  From one day to the next, breastfeeding stops.  So the child has suddenly lost its main nutritional source. That child is then expected to eat family meals.  The child isn’t used to it, he refuses to eat, he screams, he yells, he gets miserable and he loses weight.  And as well as that he’s suddenly passed from his mother to his older sister to be cared for.  A child with acute malnutrition can die.

Long-term changes

“If the Red Cross wasn’t working here in the camp things would be incredibly, incredibly difficult for people.  There would be a much higher death rate than there is at the moment. 

“But I also think that in the longer term we’re introducing different ideas into the community about child nutrition so that one day, when this camp is closed and people go back to their villages, they will have learned a little bit more about how they can care for their children.  And I think that, in the long term, is what our use will be. 

“The Red Cross is the only humanitarian organisation with expatriate staff on the ground in Gereida.  In addition to the supplementary and therapeutic feeding we’re providing, we’re also supplying the basics people need to survive: clean water, latrines and food.  Without these the camp would be a hotbed of diarrhoeal diseases, as well as cholera and typhoid. 

Social conscience

“The basic food rations we also provide include cereal, beans, oil, and a little bit of sugar and salt.  That’s it.  That is enough to live on.  And we’re providing that for every person registered in the camp.  We are providing health care, again basic health care, including vaccinations.  All this work aims to keep the health and wellbeing of the camp residents under control.

“I did my initial nursing training in Edinburgh and then in Glasgow.  I still work as a nurse in Scotland sometimes but I spend three-quarters of my time in Africa.

“I do this work basically out of a social conscience.  I have worked in Africa for many years, both with the Red Cross and with other organisations.  We live a fairly comfortable life in the UK, but I know what goes on, and I can’t just not do something about it.  I’ve got to try and help, even though I know it will only be a small proportion of the suffering children who we’re helping, but we’ve got to try and do something.

“I think there are two things people can do to support the Red Cross.  One is to donate money.  The other is to be aware of what’s going on here.  Just before I came here my sister told someone ‘oh, she’s going to Darfur’.  But the woman didn’t know where Darfur is, not even that it’s in Africa.  When you think about how much Darfur is in the news that’s sad and appalling.”

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