We are accustomed to reading about the violence on women and children in the eastern Congo but what about the deaths caused daily by the country’s “highest rates of malnutrition in the world”? Consider these other facts from the IRIN (UN) News article published on February 17:
– “90 percent: Proportion of arable land not cultivated, largely due to insecurity preventing access to fields and markets.
– 69 percent: Prevalence of under-nutrition in the DRC; up from 26 percent in 1990-92. Under-nutrition includes being underweight for one’s age, too short for one’s age (stunted), dangerously thin (wasted) and deficient in vitamins and minerals (micronutrient malnutrition).
– Congo’s per capita daily protein intake is almost half the world’s average daily protein consumption.”
You can eliminate over population, ignorance, or any other factor that would point a finger at the rural majority of people in Congo. According to the IRIN article, there has been a 544 drop in daily calories consumed per capita comparing 1992 and 2007 (2,195 kcal and 1,651 kcal, respectively). Acute malnutrition caused by a “sudden, drastic decline in nutrition intake” is now experienced by over 10 per cent of the population in 53 of the Congo’s 87 “territories”. The decline in food production and food intake since 1992 points to the state administration as impeding Congolese trying to grow their own food.
The primary factor behind children’s deaths and low life expectancy in Congo is the succession of
predatory regimes beholden to foreigners intent on exploiting the riches of the country. As the late Cardinal and Archbishop of Kinshasa Frederic Etsou declared just after Joseph Kabila’s first election in 2006, “, “I say no to this exercise in imposing on the Congolese people a candidate whose sole mandate is to satisfy the gluttonous and predatory appetites of his foreign handlers”. Until international donor nations withhold support for ruling administrations who directly and indirectly war on their own people, thousands of children in Congo will succumb to malnutrition before reaching the age of five.
In a powerful recent article from the Guardian Global Development Network (London) journalist Chris Bird describes one South Kivu family’s ordeal in a pediatric hospital. Bird writes, “I quickly felt the child’s feet – icy cold. A careful look at Beatrice showed that all the curves and dimples of a healthy child’s face had shrunk, leaving the forbidding lines of a woodblock print. Beatrice was alert, but silent, which formed an ominous void amid the rheumy eyes that grew dimmer as she seemed to fall into it.
The nursing staff went into action. They gave her glucose to prevent low blood sugar, antibiotics through the drip to fight off infection; they advised her mother to keep her warm, as hypothermia takes the lives of many of these children at night. Careful fluid management and gentle refeeding was started: give too little and the child will succumb to dehydration and shock; too much and the child will die of heart failure.”
But Beatrice’s treatments began too late and Bird describes the parents reaction: “Beatrice’s mother sobbed as we wrapped her daughter in the green cotton cloth in which she was brought. Her father lifted her easily in his arms and left the hospital, his face immobile. Her mother walked, crying, behind him, stopping on the dirt road from time to time as she doubled up in grief. An elderly man going the other way, a Red Cross armband on his left arm, dismounted his bicycle and gave a formal salute to the family as they walked past.”
In an attempt to come to grips with what lies behind the death of Beatrice and countless childen in Congo today, Bird concludes, “Where I am in the east it is green and lush, but after years of war, insecurity and economic collapse, all the children in our tent are malnourished to some degree. It is this underlying weakness that determines how children respond to the infectious diseases that claim their lives with unrelenting regularity.”
While in Mbandaka, Equator Province, far from the fighting in the East, in the summer of 2010, I asked my cook Papa Jean what happened to his brood of fifty plus chickens. “They were all taken by the soldiers” he explained. The Congolese army deployed to protect the citizens of the city of half million plus inhabitants had rioted three times in the years just prior to my Mbandaka stay. The soldiers had not been paid because their commanders had pocketed the Army’s funding. Is this the kind of security for Congo we want to help provide with our $900 milllion in U.S. aid this year?
To read Chris Bird’s article “The Silent Cost of Child Malnutrition” go to: