The women and their children had gathered in the shade of a huge tree serving as a treatment center for malnutrition. We were in Aweil, in the north of South Sudan and where child malnutrition rates are the highest in the country.
Never before had I seen so many people suffering from malnutrition in one place. Everyone looked at us expectantly, as staff from a UNICEF partner screened the children and provided a high-calorie therapeutic food to those determined to be malnourished.
Next to a box of the peanut-based, therapeutic paste sat a thin, tired-looking woman who was trying to feed her twins the food. She said her name was Athill. At only 28, she already had six children, four of whom were suffering from severe malnutrition. Today, she had brought her 8-month-old twins for a check-up and another week’s supply of the food sachets. Despite their age, the twins weighed almost the same as newborn babies, the boy just 4 kg, and the girl a little over 3 kg.
“I don’t have any food to give them apart from the paste that we receive here. If I could afford to feed them, they wouldn’t be malnourished,” said Athill.
With Athill’s permission, we accompanied her to her house in order to document her story and highlight the hunger and malnutrition crisis in Aweil. After walking for 45 minutes through the bush, we finally arrived at her home – a dilapidated structure made of mud and straw that was on the verge of collapsing. Outside her house was a tray of grass seeds, the only thing the family has been surviving on. The seeds have barely any nutritional value.
It was almost lunchtime when we arrived at Athill’s home, but there were no signs of cooking. Athill told us that they had not eaten since the previous day. As she was feeding one of the twins with the peanut paste, some of it fell on the ground, and her 4-year-old daughter quickly picked it up and put it in her mouth.
“We moved from our original village because of a lack of food. Over a period of eight months the entire village ran out of food, and we were starving, so we moved here – but the situation is not any better here. I don’t know what to do next,” she said.
A few minutes later, Athill’s husband Dim came and joined us. “I do try and get work in the local market to buy food, but there just isn’t any. I am afraid all the time that if we have no rain, there soon won’t be any grass seed to feed the family, and we will starve all over again,” he said.
The malnutrition crisis in South Sudan is truly alarming, with an estimated 360,000 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition. Without urgent response, many of them risk death. For a child with severe acute malnutrition, the risk of death from illnesses such as malaria or pneumonia is up to nine times greater than for a healthy child.
Since the beginning of the year, UNICEF has admitted and treated more than 150,000 children with severe acute malnutrition. And those are the children we could reach. Many areas of South Sudan remain inaccessible.
Mercy Kolok is a Communication Officer with UNICEF, based in Juba, South Sudan.
Read more about how people in Aweil are dealing with the daily struggle to feed themselves and their families.