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Blistering heat, but barely any food – shocking reality for Kenyan children

Four-year-old Robert is malnourished,
Four-year-old Robert is malnourished, but is receiving treatment from a Save the Children programme.

I’m just back from filming Save the Children’s life-changing nutrition work in Kenya and have come down with a dreaded travel bug.

For the past four days, anything more than bread, crackers and plain rice gives me stomach cramps.

But if I catch myself complaining today, I think about Robert, the little boy I got to know on the shoot.

Robert comes from a family of goat-herders and lives in northern Turkana. It’s a dry, harsh place to grow up – during the six hour drive from the airport, we see little but dust and thorny trees.

Now we’ve reached Robert’s village, there’s no water or farmland in sight at all. It’s hard to imagine how families survive here – when we ask, we discover Robert gets by on just maize and beans.

Sometimes he’ll also eat small fruit knocked out of the trees with stones and, if it’s a very special occasion, the family will roast a goat. But increasingly, even the meals of maize and beans are few and far between.

Life in Turkana

Living in arid, desert-like conditions, the only way his family can make money is by selling firewood, or burning it to make charcoal, a more lucrative product.

One sack of firewood buys 1kg of maize – that’s just about enough for the family to eat dinner for a couple of days.

The rest of the time, Robert’s parents can only give him water – and with just one tap for the whole community, even that’s hard to come by.

If the queues are too long to wait for in the 37C heat, the other option is to dig a shallow well in the nearby river bed. We’re told the surface is permanently dry.

The community is feeling the effects of climate change and it’s children like Robert who are suffering the most.

It’s been seven months since Robert saw rain and while the rains are due again this month, the locals aren’t holding their breath.

A shocking sight

When we first meet Robert at his home, his skinny arms and distended tummy tell us all we need to know about his nutrition levels.

But I’m still shocked to see a four-year-old so lethargic, so lacking in energy that he’s vacant behind the eyes.

It’s the hottest part of the day so we sit in the shade of a tree within the family’s compound but as we speak to his parents, Robert’s body is completely still apart from the rise and fall of his laboured breath.

Robert’s home consists of a thorny make-shift fence to keep the animals out and four tiny huts woven from young branches. We’re told these are used for storage and cooking whilst the family generally sleep outside. Dust coats everything.

Better news

Fortunately, the next morning we have some better news. We film Robert’s family as they visit an outpatient nutrition programme supported by Save the Children.

Robert and his little sister have been attending every other week since community health workers identified they were suffering from severe acute malnutrition and, looking stronger in the cool morning air, Robert is up and ready to make the journey on foot.

We’re greeted at the centre by a cacophony of colour with about 100 people gathered, almost exclusively women and children, patiently waiting for their family names to be called.

During each visit, the children are weighed, measured and sent home with a fortnight’s supply of therapeutic peanut paste, specially formulated with all the nutrients a malnourished child needs to recover.

A transformation

Ten weeks on and Robert’s upper arm measurement has moved from the red zone on the measuring band to the yellow – that’s really encouraging progress and hopefully a sign he’s on his way to the green.

And the most noticeable difference between a child who’s eaten and a child who hasn’t? Energy. And suddenly, Robert has bags of it. He’s climbing trees and singing clapping rhymes over and over again. It’s a much more familiar experience of hanging out with a four-year-old!

Despite his frame, I temporarily forget Robert is malnourished. It’s difficult to believe this is the same boy who lay listlessly beside me just yesterday.

He’s still got a way to go before he’s at full weight and out of danger but I can see that, with our ongoing support, his little body will recover. He’s already showing an appetite to throw himself at life with gusto. And that’s the magic of our interventions, not just saving lives but giving children the chance to just be children.

So whilst it might take me another couple of days to move onto the foods I crave, I’ll be savouring my bread, crackers and plain rice. Because I know Robert would.

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