The Wayuú village that beat malnutrition

Sand, sun, wind … and plastic. Lots of plastic.

The small peninsula of La Guajira looks more like a remote part of Sub-Saharan Africa than the Caribbean. This place, known as the indigenous capital of Colombia, is the land of the Wayuú. It is an inhospitable region where pastoralism and tradition mix with small-time retail and smuggling, thanks to the porous border with Venezuela nearby – a dividing line that sets no barriers for the Wayuú on either side.

In this forgotten corner of Latin America and the Caribbean, home to just over one million inhabitants, almost half of them indigenous, the basic needs of 65.2 per cent of the population are unmet. Indigenous children and adolescents, as well as pregnant women, are the most vulnerable. The data is explicit: the maternal mortality rate in La Guajira is 180.9 per 100,000 live births, while the regional average is 69 and the national average is 51.27. However, among the indigenous population, the rate soars to 242 per 100,000 live births, higher than Zambia (224) and closer to Nepal (258).

Another unfavourable figure for the Guajiros is the infant mortality rate, with 18.6 per 1,000 live births: 3.6 points above the regional average (15) and 7.45 points above the national average (11.15), in a territory where almost 430,000 people are children and adolescents.

UNICEF/UN0321728/MejíaThe infant mortality rate among the indigenous population is a staggering 242 per 100,000 live births which is higher than that of Zambia (224) and closer to Nepal (258).

Going beyond the municipality of Uribia is neither easy nor safe. The asphalt disappears, and the earth forces the best out of the 4×4. Suddenly, the wasted plastic that dot the landscape also disappear. Like a clearing in the forest, the Kepischon community emerges, formed by 14 Wayuú families with 12 sons and 12 daughters. This ranchería is unique to La Guajira. A haven of peace centered around a water mill that supplies the neighbors and their livestock and ensures survival in a hot territory without much shade.

In this remote ranchería, UNICEF Colombia and its partners try to reverse history, thanks to the “Seres de Cuidado (Caregivers)” strategy that aims to strengthen family care and nurturing in early childhood through home visits and education in situ.

“Our goal is to work with the family and the community through educational agents who set an example with care and nurturing practices, and engage institutions to respond to the community’s needs in basic issues such as health, civil registration and basic services,” explains Luz Ángela Ardunduaga, Child Survival and Development Specialist at UNICEF Colombia.

The objectives are as ambitious as they are diverse: from improving maternal and child health, to encouraging men to play an active role in the care, upbringing and development of the youngest children, and from creating spaces and behaviours based on affection, stimulation, play and communication, to promoting processes for the participation and empowerment of the community.

UNICEF/UN0321725/MejíaUNICEF is working closely with other humanitarian agencies, national and local authorities, non-governmental organizations and communities in Colombia to provide health, nutrition, education and protection to children in the community and their families.

Government and UNICEF teams, together with the community, carry out an initial assessment of different behavioural indicators. It is the Wayuú women who lead this process and ensure that the measurements are accurate, which is vital for the success of the strategy. These indicators are reviewed periodically, while workshops are held with children and families, and a mobile team oversees health needs with immunization and prenatal, nutritional and oral care.

“I have learned that I need to take my children to their growth and developmental check-ups and have their immunizations up to date. Thanks to ‘Caregivers’, my husband is more attentive to us, he is taking me to the check-ups and when my children get sick, he takes us to the hospital,” explains a mother from this community in Wayuunaiki, the local language.

UNICEF/UN0321734/Mejía“I have learned that I have to take my children to their growth and development controls,” explains a mother of this community, in Wayuunaiki, the local language.

The most notable achievement, as Marita Perceval, UNICEF Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean, explains, is that “here, in this community, no child is malnourished. Thanks to the leadership of the Community Authority and the joint work of UNICEF and the Government, this strategy has changed the lives of each and every child, as well as the women and men living in the community.”

The challenge now is to expand these results to the rest of La Guajira and other parts of Colombia with similar needs, especially considering the increase in migration flows from Venezuela that is overburdening the country’s public services.


Alfonso Fernández Reca is a member of the Communication team for UNICEF in Latin America and the Caribbean.

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