Full body transformation in just eight weeks

No, I’m not talking about “revenge body” with one of the Kardashian sisters or the fast-result fad diets popular these days. I’m talking about three children, babies, who range from eight to fourteen months old, with results that make me tear up.

Let’s go back eight weeks. I went to Aweil town in northern South Sudan to document what UNICEF is doing to help these children. Within hours of touching down, a videographer and I went to a nutrition clinic. It was late in the afternoon and normally the clinic would be closed, but the line of mothers, waiting with children on their shoulders, was far from finished. It was there we were introduced to Akot, Adut and Amira.

Akot was constantly crying and didn’t want to be held by anyone except his mother. Eventually, my colleague Jesca, who is a nutritionist, won him over and was able to console him for a few minutes.

Two infants holding a piece of food.
© UNICEF/UNI206909/Akot trying to poach Amira’s food at the nutrition centre.

The videographer was somewhat frustrated as his job was to get Akot on film, but after two days he had approximately two minutes of footage when the eight-month-old wasn’t crying. “Helene, I have no idea how we will edit this,” he said, looking concerned. Little did he know of how much he would come to like Akot, but more on that later.

Adut was Akot’s total opposite. She was quiet and somewhat indifferent to everything and everyone. To get her perspective on the situation we placed a go-pro camera on her head from time to time. She was fine with it, even though the camera was almost as big as her forehead.

Both Adut and Akot’s behaviours are quite normal when suffering from severe acute malnutrition. Some are so uncomfortable that they cry all the time, others don’t have the energy to make their surroundings aware of their pain.

Amira, we spotted from afar. From 30 meters we could see how her head appeared unusually big. It didn’t fit her body. Her upper arms were very thin, measuring 9.9 cm when tested with a MUAC tape: a measurement tool that looks like the tape measure a tailor would use.

The bad news is that severe acute malnutrition will affect 260,000 children in South Sudan in 2019. The good news is that it is easy to treat if we can get to them early.

Akot, Amira and Adut were all admitted to the UNICEF-supported outpatient therapeutic programme in Aweil. Eight weeks later they were all discharged from the programme. I went back to see them and was shocked.

Physically, Amira was the one who had transformed the most. Her mid-upper-arm-circumference has increased from 9.9 to 12 cm and her weight from 4.9 kg to 6.5 kg. I must admit I didn’t recognize at first when I came back. When we first met she didn’t have much hair. She now has started growing a mane of black hair.

Akot used to refuse food but now his ravenous appetite seems insatiable. His mother giggled when she told me that he is constantly stealing food from his siblings and I caught him almost falling into a pot filled with peeled peanuts.

A small girl sitting on her mother's lap and holding on a nutrition packet
© UNICEF/UN0345092/WilsonAmira on the day she was admitted to the nutrition programme in Aweil.

Adut started walking during the course of the programme. When she was sick she could only take a few steps if someone was helping her, while her peers were running. Now, Adut is also running, and too fast, according to her mother Angelina who is trying to keep her away from the dirty rain-water ponds outside their house.

In just eight weeks, these children have been through a total body transformation. They have more fat and muscles. The ratio between the different body parts now looks normal. Their hair has gone from greyish to black. Their skin is no longer pale and bounces back immediately if you pinch them.

For me, who has seen the before and after, I still think the biggest change is in their behaviour.

Amira is very active and plays around the house. She often “helps” with the dishes – sometimes to mommy Einas’ frustration. She has started talking and she even talks back to her grandmother.

A man sitting cross-legged on the floor looks at his phone while holding on to a small child beside him.
© UNICEF/South Sudan/RyengVideographer Alex and Akot having a moment together at the nutrition centre.

I had to look at photos from the first mission to check if Adut smiled when we were visiting, because I couldn’t remember seeing her smile. Now, I can’t get the sound of her laughter out of my head. She is comfortable with strangers like me, so long as we are not boring adults but playing along.

Akot is very busy crawling around at full speed, discovering everything around him. A leaf or a plastic bottle can keep him busy for longer periods of time, and he only cries when he is hungry. “He is just one big smile and so easy to work with,” the videographer said at the end of our last visit and couldn’t believe the two would get along so well after the first mission to Aweil.

What a change! have been with UNICEF for seven years and I know that UNICEF’s nutrition programmes work, but never have I followed cases as closely this. And I’m stunned. Proud. And humbled at the same time. Stunned because of the big changes, proud of the work UNICEF is doing with our partners, and humble because I know that the three might not be alive today if it wasn’t for the nutrition programmes.

If you want to see a true transformation, I encourage you to see this video about Adut’s journey.

Why are so many children eating too little of what they need? Take a glimpse at the changing face of malnutrition and download the report on the State of the World’s Children.


Helene Sandbu Ryeng is a communication specialist working for UNICEF in South Sudan.

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