The cries of babies coming from the isolated building makes one want to dash there and soothe them to sleep. I am deep in the Western Equatoria State of South Sudan at the Mundri primary health care centre to meet Linda Juma, one of the core staff serving in this facility. As we sit down to chat, surrounded by wailing babies, I soon realise why Linda’s work is so important here and saving lives is not just another cliché but a true calling for her. I hesitate for a moment, for I feel plucking her from her task for this interview is too much, but her warm smile eliminates this moment of awkwardness as she ushers me to a seat next to her.
Linda is currently the Nutrition officer for Mundri West County, a position she has held since 2010. She tells me that this is the best decision she ever took after she decided to relocate back to South Sudan from Khartoum (Sudan) after staying there for twenty-two years. "At least I am serving my community with the knowledge I acquired in that country," she says.
Mundri West Country is one of the three counties where AAH-I through the USAID-funded Integrated Service Delivery Project, is providing a minimum package of integrated primary health care services with a main focus on the health of mothers and children. The project also operates in Ibba and Yei Counties in Western and Central Equatoria States respectively. In its second year now, the project is delivering services to an estimated population of 400,000 and is supporting a total of thirty-four facilities in the three counties. In 2013, over 7,800 children under the age of one year were immunized and more than 23,000 other under the age of five received Vitamin A nutritional supplements.
On a typical day, Linda tells me that she sees about a hundred children. I nod my head in agreement as I witness the flurry of activities around the room. Some mothers are removing clothes off their children at one corner of the room and handing the wailing tots to an elderly lady who goes on to put them on a weighing scale hanging from the roof. I observe Magdalene, Linda’s assistant, as she carefully weighs the children and scribbles on the card the mothers hand to her. This is a special card that has a graph that helps them to track the children’s growth process.
Linda tells me that despite all the effort they put in on advising mothers about better child care, cases of malnourished children are still rampant and this really disheartens her. "Some children we see here come looking very sickly and are often underweight," she says with a thoughtful look. "For the severe cases, we put the children on a supplement," she explains. She shows me red packages on her desk containing a life-saving protein formulation that helps children recover faster. Apart from treating the children, Linda also gives the mothers health education and counsels them on what to feed their children. When I ask Linda why mothers will wilfully let their children get to such a state, she quickly tells me that this is a combination of many factors. "Most cases of malnourished children that we see are by young mothers - 13, 14 and 15 years-olds," she explains. "These are still young children themselves and do not know how to take care of children. Often, they will give birth and abandon the children with the grandmothers to either go back to school or go out to look for money." For older women, Linda says malnourishment of children is due to having children too closely forcing children to stop breastfeeding before the stipulated 24 months. "In most communities, it is a taboo to breast-feed children while the mother is expecting another child," she says.
Such cultural beliefs are detrimental to children’s health and it is against such that Linda and Magdalene are working hard to dispel in order to safeguard the well-being of children in Mundri West County and beyond. AAH-I’s ISDP project is a key driver in helping Linda, Magdalene and health care staff in the other facilities ensure mothers and children access quality services.
Written by Ann Thuo, Communications Manager, AAH-I