In the city of Mao in Kanem province in Chad, there is a hospital we fund where the sound of silence on the children’s ward is chilling.
It’s strange to be with children who are so quiet. In the intensive care ward where they are treating babies for severe acute malnutrition there are fifteen mothers with their young children. In a few months time this number will soar but I am certain that the oppressive silence will remain the same.
I meet Zara Mahomet Saleh; at seventeen months she is being treated for malaria and a respiratory infection. Malnutrition has weakened her coping defences and the illnesses accumulate. On an adjoining mattress lies Oumar Ali, eight months old and in similar shape. Their mothers, who are mostly teenagers, walk for hours to the hospital from outlying villages when they can no longer manage and the traditional healers in their communities have failed them.
A doctor paints a bleak picture in which the overriding solutions are access and education. Breastfeeding, for instance, is incredibly low at around three per cent. “They give water to their babies instead because it is so hot and they think that’s what they need. The healers perform ‘operations’ like pulling what they call “false teeth” from their mouths, which in turn creates wounds which get infected,” he tells me.
Around thirty per cent of girls in Chad marry at the age of thirteen. Poverty is widespread and many children are born in it. Currently a million children are at risk of malnutrition. Of these, 127,000 are threatened with severe acute malnutrition. And only 34 per cent of children have access to medical facilities. It’s worth recalling that in this silent room lie the lucky ones, because they made it here and by doing so, in spite of their sickness, they just improved their survival chances to ninety per cent. Next door is the room of children who have already recovered – and the sound of some of them crying is the evidence of their strength.
The doctor is certain about the solutions but, as he freely admits, he is realistic about the prospects for the structural changes which are required to turn this appalling situation around becoming reality. “It’s difficult because it involves changing ingrained habits,” he shrugs.
I hope that these changes will come. People will have to adapt to the effects of climate change and the pattern of droughts. In my brief time in Chad I was heartened by the good work I saw and by the generosity and warmth of its people. A crisis is looming and I will do everything I can to ensure that we can prevent it. But we must also begin the hard work of long-term planning and changing those damaging ingrained habits straight away.