Each week, like clockwork, I see the same malnourished children come to the health center, to be weighed and monitored. And each week, though there are exceptions, they weigh the same. This week, one particular case stood out.
There’s a child who has weighed between 7.2-7.5 kilos for the past 6 months, weight varying very little. She is 18 months old and hovering around 15lbs, she is the size of a 5 month old. And, like we do with most mothers, we take them aside and try to explain why this stagnant weight is such an issue—for mental development, for stunting (height x age) and for the overall health of the child. After 20 minutes of myself and my two counterparts trying to hammer in this fact, one of them says to me, in English, “she doesn’t care.”
Those are tough words to hear. She doesn’t care. She doesn’t care that her child is severely underweight and can pass as a 5-6 month old. In an earlier post, I referred to the idea of poverty in the development world. The mothers have told me that poverty inhibits children from being healthy from birth, that poverty is inevitable, that poverty cannot be changed. It also then made me think about why I care about certain things and not others. I cannot fault this mother for having a hard time seeing through this tough stage in her child’s growth. If I saw that, for 6 months, my child hadn’t put on even half a kilo, I too would be discouraged.
But, alternatively, I have seen children thrive, even in the lowest economic category. It is about mentality. This one particular child was born to a single mother. Her mother is illiterate but yet when we talk about health and how to improve a balanced diet and how to make use of the resources available to her, she understands that this is important. So while poverty, in many cases, is a block to child growth, it’s also very much a mentality and a cycle that people have accepted is their “destiny” and/or future.
But I also can understand why this is a sentiment and frame of mind. The people I work with are heavily influenced by their peers, who are also farmers, whose families are also traditionally farmers. School for them goes until secondary because up until then, it’s free.
Influence from peers and family is stronger than you could ever imagine, especially in a small village, where outside influence is minimal. I am not expecting that my presence or any kind of development projects that throw money at the problem, will change anyone’s behavior. Behavior change comes from within, it comes from peers believing that they can continue school and read and have a future that isn’t necessarily in farming, that the health of their children is in their hands and control.