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Doctors, donkeys and Dolly Parton

Getting up at 5am on a Monday morning would normally involve a lot of moaning, but this time it couldn’t have been more worth it…

Boarding ECHO’s 30-seater plane heading for Wajir, I was feeling apprehensive. I have been writing and talking about our programmes since joining Save the Children, but this was to be my first experience of seeing our work on the ground, and of interacting with some of the most vulnerable children that we work with — my main motivation for working in this sector.

We arrived to a warm welcome from the wonderful team in Wajir, who whisked us off in a couple of Land Rovers for our mandatory security briefing, before heading out on the roads.

The first thing that strikes me is the heat. In contrast to Nairobi, where it’s on the cooler side of mild, Wajir is extremely humid, with temperatures up in the high-30’s; bathing in your own sweat takes a bit of getting used to!

It’s not the only way Wajir contrasts to Nairobi; Wajir feels like a forgotten place, far behind the mad pace of Nairobi, tucked away in the Somali corner of Kenya. Donkeys and camels are the main form of transport here, and seeing tumble weed rolling down the main road is not uncommon. The level of poverty is high. The homes (called ‘manyattas’) are made of woven twigs, with some of the lucky ones sporting a piece of plastic sheeting. Food is scarce.

Throughout the mission we travelled in convoy to and from Save the Children’s projects along dirt tracks, populated with camels, giraffes and ditches full of water. I have never been a fan of hospitals (who is?!), but our stabilisation centre in the paediatric ward exuded an unexpected feeling of positivity. The place was light and clean with colourful mosquito nets and new bedding, and smiling nurses who attended each baby with the utmost dedication. There was a real sense of hope and optimism among the staff working here.

At Save the Children’s health facility in Tarbaj Division I met a young single mother and her 8-month-old baby having a check-up with one of Save the Children’s doctors. Dr Mohammed was extremely concerned about the baby’s condition and referred him immediately to our stabilisation unit in the nearby hospital. The baby is suffering from acute diarrhoea, dysentery, suspected pneumonia, and, on top of all that, he is severely malnourished. I will never be able to forget the empty look in the child’s eyes and the mother’s look of desperation. This is only one of many similar stories I heard while in Wajir. These individual stories highlight the overwhelming scale of humanitarian assistance needed in North Eastern Kenya.

Funded by ECHO (the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Office), we’ve focused on children under the age of five, and pregnant and breastfeeding women who are at risk of dying because they’re not getting the nutrition they need. We’re treating 12,000 malnourished children and pregnant and breastfeeding women in our nutrition programme in north-east Kenya by providing them with supplementary feeding and specialist care for the severely malnourished children who need hospital treatment. The work we’re doing here is crucial and is saving children’s lives.

It’s been emotional witnessing so many sick and unhappy babies suffering in these remote villages, but it’s truly inspiring to see our outreach team working flat out, in very challenging circumstances, to help children and mothers survive.

It’s vital that we continue to raise awareness of the critical situation in the north-east with the aim of engaging our supporters, raising more money, influencing more key decision-makers, and ultimately saving more children’s lives.

The only airstrip in Wajir is through a check-point and within a military base, where we all wait in a reflective silence for our flight back to Nairobi.

It’s a surreal end to the mission; birds are building a nest in the air vents above us and Dolly Parton is being played on the sound system. She’s singing “We can rely on each other, from one corner to another,” which is something I will try to remember when I’m all the way back in Head Office in London… There’s a huge responsibility for us to stand accountable and ensure we’re doing everything in our power to help the most vulnerable children receive their basic rights across all corners of the world.

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