During my first two days, I experienced joy and sadness in equal measure. I was delighted, enlightened, and confused. The UNICEF team in Guinea gave me the most comprehensive introduction to their programmes for children, and a deeply complex picture of life began to emerge.
I immediately got a real sense of one of the biggest challenges that children face in the country: hunger and malnutrition. When a baby doesn’t receive the right nutrients in the first thousand days of life, it can irreversibly ‘stunt’ their physical and emotional development. They will grow up unable to realise their full potential, so that even if hunger doesn’t take their life, it will almost certainly take away their future.
One of the first places we visited was the National Institute of Child Health and Nutrition (INSE) in the Donka Hospital in Conakry. Here I met some of Guinea’s most experienced doctors and child-care specialists, in whose charge are some of the most severely malnourished children. Seeing these children immediately tempered any surges of adventurous adrenalin that I’d felt about travelling in West Africa; I was simply overwhelmed by seeing so many small infants in such great need.
One small ward, about the size of a single room, housed at least twenty children, some of whom had slim chances of survival. Their arms and legs were indescribably thin, their cheeks tear-stained, their skin a harrowing, slate-grey. Most shocking to me was the speed and urgency of their breathing, asleep or awake, it was uniformly unsettled and uneven. When you see a child struggling so hard simply to breathe, it makes your heart hurt. Most if not all had been admitted because of malnutrition, or a condition inherited from their mother’s malnutrition.
The doctors are doing everything they can, but they need more and better equipment, as well as greater capacity. In the ward of twenty children, there was one life-support machine supplying oxygen. Just one.
It was tough to get to sleep that night, remembering the sight of those children, but I had come expecting the week to be tough one, full of mixed emotions.
The next morning heralded an early start: a drive along the one main motorway in Guinea to the remote village of Loppe, to see UNICEF’s sanitation work, to meet the families who live there and use local wells and latrines. Separating water sources is vital to keep water wells clean and to protect them from run-off from the land in the rainy season, which is contaminated by animal waste.
This basic hygiene and good sanitation raises the standard of general health, and protects mothers and children from passing on disease. If there’s no bar of soap, a bucket of ash will do the trick. This is particularly crucial for children suffering from malnutrition. Diarrhoea, caused by drinking dirty water or bad sanitation, is one of the biggest killers of children. Even if they live, it can leave their weak, young bodies struggling for survival.
What happened next was one of the most uplifting experiences of my journey. I was invited into the home of a young family with one boy and two girls. They lived in a thatched roofed circular hut, under which was one singular room. Inside was a bed, which also served as bench and table. I compliment the mother and father on how well their children look, how strong they seem. Her elder daughter reminds me of my niece.
My travelling companion asked the mum if she was able to breastfeed her children. “Yes,” she says, “for six months, each of them”. How did you know to do that? I ask. “I walked to the centre de santé,” she replies, “when I was pregnant. They told me I should breastfeed. Also I heard it on the radio”. ‘That’s fantastic’, I say. I’d been alarmed how few women knew that breastfeeding for the first six months is extremely important for nutrition and to prevent malnutrition.