By Collins Kaumba, World Vision Zambia
The day Sara Siachalinga, 36, gave birth to her fifth child, Loveness, she felt like nearly all new mothers: happy. But a few months later, her joy began to fade away.
Loveness began to suffer from a complicated illness that puzzled Sara. Though she did her best to figure out how to help her child, she felt like her efforts were fruitless.
"Loveness was very ill; she was not able to breast-feed, eat or drink anything. Her face, legs and hands were swollen such that if you pressed a finger on any swollen part, a dimple formed and it would take time for the skin to get back to normal. I couldn't understand the whole situation," she shared.
"My child's condition continued to deteriorate. I became confused, sad and devastated because I did not know what to do. My husband kept taking me to witch-finders where I was accused of engaging in promiscuity, which (they said) was making the child sick. I was innocent but my husband warned me that if the child dies, I would be in trouble."
Sara says they believed that Loveness was suffering from a disease which is locally known as masato. Local traditions say that masato affects breast-feeding babies when either the mother or father is involved in an extramarital affair. In most cases, women are the ones who are accused of causing the ailment and usually pay a heavy price when the sick child dies; the woman is either divorced or given some form of punishment.
Sara lost all hope. "I was giving up, (when) some community women who were trained by CMAM (Community Management of Acute Malnutrition) visited me. They were going door-to-door to sensitize people on malnutrition," she explains.
The women came at the right time; Sara now sees them as angels sent by God. "Their visit is what saved my baby,” Sara recalled emotionally. She found it hard to believe what they told her after screening the child; that she was suffering from malnutrition. The women helped Sara get Loveness to Maamba hospital where World Vision was providing special food for children suffering from malnutrition.
The day that Loveness, then 30-months old, opened her eyes after a long period in a coma marked the revival of her mother's lost hope.
"I never thought she would ever open her eyes again and I was surprised to see my child recover," she explains vividly. "I couldn't believe it was my child who was recovering and eating a lot; neither could my husband."
Without the treatment Loveness would have not lived to see her fifth birthday. She was diagnosed with severe malnutrition and fed with plumpynut to allow her to gradually recover before transitioning to other high energy and protein supplements. Loveness was on the feeding program for four months and gained 30 percent more weight during that time.
Loveness has now recovered fully — she is active, healthy and able to play. Sara shares joyfully, "People in the community can't believe that my child is alive and looking as though she never suffered from malnutrition."
Sara, who lives in Nambisya village, 225 miles south of Zambia's capital city of Lusaka, says community members from CMAM have trained her on how to prepare nutritious meals for her children using affordable local foods including groundnuts, soy beans, fish, vegetables and milk.
Local World Vision health facilitator Alfred Mwita says malnutrition has a devastating effect on children if not treated early because it weakens their immunity. It predisposes them to other illnesses like diarrhea and can cause stunting.
In the months since, Sara has become an advocate for children suffering from malnutrition. Her wish is that all people could hear her voice, or that of other community advocates, and open their eyes to what is really taking their children's lives.
"I have decided to become one of the volunteers educating the community that masato does not exist. It's hunger that is killing our children in the community. I use my child's case as an example and I thank God that they have seen how my child has been assisted and how she has recovered," she says.