Friday, August 21, 2009

The Bulumwaki Baby

One month ago, an older woman in Bulumwaki Village showed up to a family planning sensitization, holding in her arms a baby malnourished almost to the point of death. It was impossible to tell how old the child was – his head seemed far too large for his body, which was about the size of a 3 month old, and his skin was light and tinged yellow, sucked in against his bones like thin, dry paper. His eyes were huge and glassy, appearing to see nothing, and his head lolled loosely on his neck.

The woman holding the child was its auntie – the mother had died in childbirth, about one year ago. ‘What are you feeding the baby,’ the team asked the auntie. Mostly water, she replied. She was poor, and a migrant to the village with no family around and too many mouths to feed already. She could not afford to buy milk for the baby, or anything else more nutritious than occasional, watery maize porridge.

The team was shocked, and the Ugandan women from SoftPower (the NGO conducting the family planning sensitization), said they had never seen such a malnourished child in all their lives. They promised to bring a high-calorie milk mixture for the child to their next Healthy Village outreach in Walukuba.

The next week Julius Ntalo – the Ugandan volunteer in the Bulumwaki summer volunteer team, though now UVP staff – came to Walukuba Village to fetch the milk mixture from the SoftPower staff. It was a thick mixture of powered milk, oil and sugar, to be mixed with boiled water and fed to the baby a few times a day. The Bulumwaki team gave the mixture to the baby’s auntie, along with directions, and also gave her money for transport to the Iganga Hospital, as it really appeared that the baby needed more care than simple feeding.

The auntie – grateful almost to the point of tears – began feeding the child on the milk mixture, and also took it to Iganga Hospital a couple weeks later. Upon arrival, however, there was no doctor to be seen. The auntie stayed at the hospital for four days (not uncommon at Ugandan hospitals), and at the end of this time the doctor came by just once, and looked at the baby for five minutes. ‘There is something wrong with its neck,’ the doctor said. ‘And it is malnourished.’ He gave the auntie a packet of milk mixture and told her to come back the next week for somebody else to look at the baby’s neck.

Of course, the woman had no money to return to the hospital. Two weeks later, after the Bulumwaki volunteer team had left, Julius and I went to check up on the baby. The auntie brought him out proudly, pinching skin off his frail little ribs to show how much healthier he had grown since he had begun on the milk mixture. This might have been true, but my instant reaction was one of horror – having not seen the baby before, it certainly still appeared to me to be on death’s doorstep. Julius agreed that the baby still looked very, very bad. He was still far, far too skinny, and his eyes stared in that wide, unseeing manner which accompanies sever malnourishment. His head still rolled listlessly on his neck, in a sickly fashion that made one’s skin quiver.

We asked the woman if she had been feeding the baby on the milk mixture every day, and she told us that she had, though it was almost out. She recounted the story of the hospital visit, and as the child obviously needed to be seen by a doctor again (preferably without the four-day wait), we decided to send her to the SoftPower Health Clinic in Jinja. We gave her and a friend the money for transport to come into Iganga Town a few days later, explaining that we would meet her in Iganga and take her to the Clinic.

Carrying through on this plan, we arrived last Thursday with the auntie, the auntie’s friend, and the child at the SoftPower clinic in Jinja. Sad news met the child’s examination: it had malaria, as well as being malnourished, and had been sick for so long that it might not ever fully recover. ‘Does he sleep under a mosquito net,’ the SoftPower staff asked the woman. No, she replied – they did not even have money for mats to sleep on, never mind mosquito nets. The SoftPower staff told the woman that she must acquire a mat and a mosquito net for the child, and must continue to feed it on the milk mixture until it could eat solid foods. If we are lucky, the child will be able to speak, and move about regularly in future. However, it may never speak, and its neck and spine – which had borne some infection in the past – may never function normally. It is probable that the child will be mentally impaired, due to the severe malnourishment it has suffered.

The milk mixture needed will cost 70,000 UShs per month, the US equivalent of $35 monthly, but an impossibly large sum in a Ugandan village. While we are not in the usual practice of spending large sums of money on a single villager (UVP is working with so many needy villagers, in so many poor villages), helping this child seems an issue of basic humanity. To refuse help would surely be the boy’s death sentence. So, we shall invest in this child’s life, and supply him with a net, a mat, and the milk mixture until he can eat solid food. I would challenge anyone to look into his eyes and decide differently.

If you wish to help the Bulumwaki baby, please go ahead and make a donation through our online paypal account, or write a check (made out to Uganda Village Project, with 'Bulumwaki' in the memo line) to our treasurer at:

Uganda Village Project
c/o Kristina Wang
1244 Dormouse Rd.
San Diego, California, 92129


Lourdes said...

Hello, My name is Lourdes Diaz, and I am former UVP volunteer. This story broke my heart. It brought memories of my summer there..I know this was written in August and now we are nearing the month of is the baby doing now? Have people donated?

Alison, UVP Assistant Director said...

The baby is doing much better! We brought it to PADI (Ibulanku Health Center) for treatment and he has been discharged in greatly improved condition.

Alison, UVP Assistant Director said...

We can still certainly use any donations to help treat these malnourished babies. A generous volunteer donated to cover this baby's treatment, but we have been finding more babies like this and are starting a comprehensive nutrition education program that will help prevent these issues from occurring in the first place.