What does it take to save the life of a child in Uganda? Listen to our Co-Founder, Becky Straw, as she takes you behind-the-scenes to meet two children struggling with malnutrition and the women working tirelessly to keep them healthy.
My team insisted that I tell you this story. Actually, they said I need to do a video, but I have mom hair (which is a greasy, greasy ponytail). So we compromised and agreed that I should try out audio, which I’ve never done before - so here it goes!
For those who don't know me, I'm Becky Straw. I'm the co-founder of The Adventure Project, which is a nonprofit working to create jobs in developing countries. And I’m a new mom!
If you are a member of the Collective, or maybe you've given one time years and years ago, I would love for you to hear this story. Or, if you've never heard of us before and you're totally new here, welcome!
This is a story about love.
So a few weeks ago I was in Uganda. And I was there to visit Christine, which is really special for me because I met her for the first time when she was applying for her job. Which if you know this story, she was the mom who couldn't find a babysitter, so she brought the baby with her to the interview. She’s still working, and she's doing great. It's been five years now, and we're going to share her story later this fall. But I was there with my friend and photographer, Esther Havens, and we had the pleasure of checking in with Christine and going on some rounds with her. But I guess I should back up really quickly and tell you more about Christine’s job.
Christine works for an organization called Living Goods, which is a revolutionary health care organization working in Uganda and now Kenya to train women, like Christine -- and some men -- to become licensed community healthcare workers. And they go a few times a week to a local branch. So, hundreds of women will go to the local branch. There, they’ll get supervision; they’ll get training; and they'll pick up their healthcare products and their medicine and they’ll go back out into the communities. They are kind of like a walking drugstore; they’re like a Duane Reade of their community. And they have about 60 different products that they can provide and prescribe right then and there, which is really phenomenal.
For those that don't know, about six million children will die this year in developing countries, and most of those deaths are preventable. So what that means is that they’re dying of things like pneumonia; water-related diseases, like diarrhea; malaria. You know these are deaths that should not be happening because we know how to treat them and the drugs are very affordable.
Living Goods has changed the game by helping to provide a skilled healthcare worker who knows how to diagnose and has the drugs available to treat that child. And that is why evidence has shown that just having one Living Goods CHP in a community reduces child mortality 27%. Which I really say phenomenal over and over again, but it really truly is a game-changer for these communities.
So we meet Christine in front of her house, and you know I’ve met her several times over the years. And every-time she has a different hair color. Sometimes it's red; today it is purple. But she exudes this vibrant joy, and maybe that's reflective of all of the colors in her hair.
But we’re there with her supervisor Jackline, and they told us they want to take us to a family they've been keeping a close eye on because two of the younger sisters have been suffering from malnutrition.
So we walk down this red dirt path, and turn the corner, and come across this woman sitting under this palm tree, in the shade, on a little blanket with this huge pot of vegetables, in which she's washing the cassava and potatoes. And sitting directly across from her in a little row, almost like a little ducklings, are these three beautiful girls that are probably around two or three years old, with their hands in the pot just helping her scrub the vegetables and prepare them for dinner. It was just this quintessential, adorable scene.
I’m gonna play some of our audio now. I warn you that this wasn't collected on professional equipment so I apologize for all the background noise. But here is Jackline explaining the family and introducing them to us.
Jackline: Speaking in Lugandan. These ones are the same age.
Becky: “They're twins?”
Jackline: “No, they are not twins. She’s a new wife here.”
Becky: “This mama is a new wife?”
Jackline : “Yes, that's her only child. So this one, the mom left her when she was six months. Then, this one’s mom, the mom got to know this and there’s new wife in that family. So she also sent in the other one, but the conditions were not good”
Becky: “So they have the same mom?”
Jackline: “Different moms, but the same dad.”
Becky: “So when this mom found out that this one was dropped off, she did the same?”
Jackline: “Yes, she did the same.”
Becky: “Ah, okay. So when she got them, how were they doing? How were they?“
Jackline: “They were really bad. Really bad. When she brought--when they brought Namuddu, like I said, she was almost dying. Her skin would like, you would pull the skin… it was really bad. People had given up. Her eyes were like sunken. But she said okay, this is my husband’s house; this is my husband’s child; I can’t tell him to take that child to their mom because I’m now the mom. If this mom really loved her child she wouldn't have left, so she started taking care of her.”
So one of the things Christine pulls out of her backpack is this circumference tape. It's called the mid-upper arm circumference; it's colored, and it's a plastic strip. You may have seen it; it is a quick and simple way to determine whether a child is malnourished. You wrap it around their arm, and then based on what color it’s at, you can tell how thin they are basically. So I was asking Jackline about that.
Becky: “What does red usually mean?”
Jackline: “It's a danger sign. So, then you then have to ask the mother to take the child to the hospital.”
Becky: “So did she take her?”
Jackline: “Yes. She has taken her to the hospital several times in moments were Christine cannot do anything. Then there's times where she would give her Living Goods porridge...”
(Christine talking in the background)
Becky: “Would you mind translating what she's telling her?”
Jackline: “She's determined but she still lacks because she's at 13, it’s not good. She's just gotten out of the yellow zone, which is fair but 13 is not good. She can still go back down so we want her to really go up. So the mom needs to put in all the effort she can. She first appreciated her for what she has done so far. But more effort is needed. But we trust that she knows what she has to do because she is determined that the babies look better than before.”
We ask the mom how she thinks the girls are doing.
Jackline: “She has seen an improvement. She used to worry a lot before but the way they are now, she believes they can get much better. Yes, but they are much better than before.”
So as Christine is doing her checkup, it becomes apparent that Nannadu’s sister, Millie, is struggling a bit. She has these lesions on her scalp, and her head looks like some scabbing. And it is determined that she has some malnutrition and stunting. And it's most likely caused by a parasite, and she needs some deworming medicine, which you know Christine has on her. So Christine takes them out. They come in this little white box; I know the box well. I've taken my fair share of meds because I've had my fair share of parasites. And she proceeds to tell Mom “Millie need some deworming.” And the mom and her go back and forth for a while talking about it, and in essence, what the mom is saying is “I don't have any money right now. Let me ask my husband. And will you come back and then I will buy the drugs.”
And then you know as we're all talking, there's kids playing around and then another kid will come up behind the mom and kind of hug her neck. And we’re sitting there going, “Well, wait who’s that kid? Or who's this kid?!”
And the mom goes, “Oh, well these are my other kids”. And we’re like, “Other kids?! (laughing) How many kids do you have? We thought there was these three girls.” And she goes “Oh, I have seven.” And at that point you know the roof just falls out, and we’re looking at her going seven?!
And she goes on to say well only two are her birth children and the other five are her husband’s and she has taken in the other kids in as her own. And then you know the next thing I know, I see Jackline open up her backpack, take out her wallet, and hand Christine some money.
Becky: “Can you tell me what just happened? Did you sell that to her?”
Jackline: “We give her. I’m going to pay her. Because there are instances you reach in the field and you're like okay, I understand the situation they're going through. I can't pay for everyone but there are stories that touch you; and it's only 1,000 per tablet. I can borrow that 3,000 (Ugandan Shillings) for today, and I do that; and at least I make sure that they got their deworming tablets for today. And sometimes it's a strategy because if it works out for her, next time Christine comes around she's like, ‘Musawo (Lugandan for “nurse or doctor”) the tablets works for me’ and she will buy.”
Becky: “Yeah of course”
Jackline is justifying it to me -- or maybe even to herself -- as this marketing strategy. Right? It’s this free trial, and she's also right that the drugs are not expensive. It's a thousand Ugandan Shillings for one deworming treatment; and that's equivalent to $0.27 in US dollars. So here's a mom of seven kids who doesn't even have $0.27 on her, and clearly she's a mom in so much need. And my heart went out to her, too. I thought geez, I can't imagine raising seven children. I have a hard time raising my own one child sometimes (laughing); and here she is, she's doing the best she can. And Living Goods is so focused on metrics and data, and they’re very clinical that way; I guess you have to be this way to be a healthcare organization focused on scientific results and tracking metrics. But at the same time, I sat there and thought, “You know what? That all may be true, but your strategy here is love; it’s compassion. That's what's making them so successful.”
I mean there's even a point where Jackline is kind of being goofy with Millie, and I can see Millie laughing. So I asked about that and she says:
Jackline: “We made a promise. I found her with long nails, and they were dirty. So I told her go talk to Mommy and ask if she can cut your nails. So she said, ‘Mommy, please cut my nails.” I promised her, if I come back… I asked her what she likes the most and she said chocolate. So I said if I come back and your nails are clean, I will bring you chocolate.”
These are children that live in their neighborhood. This is their community, and it’s kind of this “leave no man behind” philosophy, right? Or “leave no child behind.” They're going to do what it takes to make sure that these kids have what they need to be healthy; and just what a blessing they are to be able to serve in this way.