The following was written by Matt Darvas, an Australian aid worker with World Vision in Nepal.
When I moved to Nepal last year, I lost the chance to pull on the jersey for my local Sydney soccer club. Joining my teammates on those crisp Sydney Saturday winter afternoons is something I deeply miss. And yet here in the remote high-altitude villages of Jumla, Nepal, as I look out of my window at the snow covered peaks of the Himalayas, I’m reaching for another ‘jersey’ that fills me with the same sense of pride and passion every time I put it on - it’s the shirt I wear whenever I step into communities on behalf of World Vision.
But this time, I’m not part of a game we can afford to lose. This time, it’s children’s lives that are at stake and we’re playing for keeps.
Author Matt Darvas meeting Shanti and Dakshina at a World Vision Nutrition Project in Jumla, Nepal
I’m visiting the World Vision Maternal, Child Health and Nutrition Project being run in the local community by World Vision Australia - made possible by the generosity and partnership of the Asian Football Confederation and football fans throughout Asia. The programme is one of several across Asia being supported as part of the One Goal campaign seeking to bring nutrition to every child in Asia.
When it comes to fighting malnutrition in Asia, remote communities like this one in Nepal - where until recently up to 84% of all children under the age of 5 were classified as ‘malnourished’ - are the primary frontlines we need to attack.
After an hour skirting dangerously close to the edge of a road that plunges straight into a thundering glacial river below, I’m told we’ve arrived at the village. I feel a bit deceived as it’s still another hour’s trek straight up the side of a mountain (though I don’t complain once I see the view from the top) before we finally reach the home of a local female health volunteer, where the women are spread out in the morning sun, each cradling a severely malnourished child in their lap. The children gulp quickly and greedily from the bowls in front of them under the watchful eyes of mothers desperate for their child to put on the weight they so badly need to gain before the winter.
Winter is known around here as the ‘hungry months’. When the snow piles up, everyone becomes reliant on their dry season harvest and the food supply can often simply ‘run-out’. When that happens, it’s the lives of children like these that are often lost.
Of all the women sitting on the road, it’s Shanti who catches my eye. She appears older than most and yet the child on her lap is just 3 years old.
Shanti and Dakshina at the feeding program.
Like most of the women in her village, Shanti’s marriage was arranged at a young age. In fact she was just sixteen when it came time to leave her village and family behind to join her husband’s household (what were you doing when you were sixteen?). Shanti was then only nineteen years old when her first daughter was born, and nineteen years old still when she lost her 6 months later.
Shanti lost her next child, the one after that, and the one after that…
Shanti’s first four children all passed away when they were between 6 – 12 months old. She says it was from ‘sickness’, which around here is normally just code for ‘something that could have been entirely preventable.’
And now sitting in her lap is Dakshina, whose name means “Gift from the gods”. Dakshina is her eighth child in total and the youngest of the four that remain. Shanti told me that when Dakshina was two years old, she was classified as ‘severely malnourished’, weighing in at less than 6 kilograms (a healthy weight for that age is between 10 – 12 kilograms).
Thankfully for Shanti and precious Dakshina, they had been identified and enrolled by local field staff into the World Vision Maternal, Child Health and Nutrition project.
The feeding program takes children from the community who weigh less than 5 kilograms at 6 months of age, and refers them to a 15 day intensive feeding program run at a local female health volunteer’s house. Mothers and their children gather daily for a nutritious meal of either ‘local porridge’ (a specially formulated mix of local grains, lentils and vegetables), ‘super flour’ (equal parts of wheat, corn and soya) or eggs. At the same time they are shown how to prepare similar food at their own homes, and taught the importance of good hygiene and sanitation practices.
A local health volunteer dishes out nutritious food at World Vision’s feeding program.
As Dakshina spooned another mouthful of dhal and leafy spinach towards her mouth, I asked Shanti how it was that she was able to continue after the grief of losing her first four children.
“I might have lost my first four children but I still need to care for her (looking down at Dakshina). I gave birth to her and I love her. It’s my duty as her mother.”
Today Dakshina still has a long way to go. She is now three and a half years old and still weighs only 8 kilograms. But under the watchful eyes of the local female health volunteer and the World Vision staff, she is steadily putting on weight and the future looks a lot brighter.
And as for me, I walked away from that village after meeting Shanti, realising that there may have been things I had to give up in order to move and live in Nepal but that I wouldn’t trade our lives here for the world.
Together, we can be inspired by Shanti’s strength and be led to give generously from that with which we have been so abundantly blessed. I urge you, get behind communities like Shanti’s that World Vision is working hard to empower, so that ‘hungry months’ are a thing of the past and no mother has to see a single child of theirs die unnecessarily.