Six-year-old Ladi is hungry most days at the New Kuchingoro displaced persons camp, Abuja. She has been living there with her mother, for two years now following their displacement from Gwoza, Borno State as a result of insurgency.
One evening a few days ago hunger drove her to the surrounding bushes with some of her little friends. They found a mango tree with unripe fruits. Ladi ate some of the unripe mangoes and developed stomach ache thereafter.
As at the time this reporter visited the camp a day after the incident, the little girl was vomiting, with traces of blood in her stool. Succor only came her way when a health organization came on a charity outreach to the camp and gave her mother some medicines to administer on her.
Findings revealed that most children in the camp were poorly fed and often sick. With some losing their lives because most parents there could not afford taking them to a health facility. There is also no health facility in the camp.
While IDP camps are usually squalid and people there do not have enough to eat, the case seemed to have gone from bad to worse at the New Kuchingoro IDP camp.
According to Mrs Hannatu Andrawus, a displaced person at the camp, throughout a day for instance, the children may end up taking only a half cup of garri, a popular local cassava flakes in Nigeria.
She said sometimes the children gather round a tree in the camp expecting a charity organization to bring cooked food but that they often wait in vain because individuals and corporate organizations, perhaps because of the economic situation in the country do not bring food and other relief materials to the camp like before.
She said within the last three months the camp had not received a meaningful donation.
On good days when food is brought by charity organizations, the younger and stronger men in the camp rush for the food leaving the children and their mothers who cannot beat them in the rush or struggles with nothing to eat, women at the camp said.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) nearly half of all deaths in children under five are attributable to undernutrition.
“Undernutrition puts children at greater risk of dying from common infections, increases the frequency and severity of such infections, and contributes to delayed recovery. In addition, the interaction between undernutrition and infection can create a potentially lethal cycle of worsening illness and deteriorating nutritional status.”
Dr Iretiola Babaniyi a retired Chief Consultant Pediatrician and Medical Director Joyland Medical Centre and Children’s Hospital, Abuja said when children were not well nourished, their immunity weakens and they become prone to many diseases.
She said in an overcrowded, and dirty environment like IDP camps, when children do not eat well, they will be prone to vomiting, diarrhea, frequent malaria infection, cough and catarrh and even sexual assaults. She added that when children were scavenging for food, they may meet people who take advantage of them, and they could be crushed by vehicles.
“If you are not well nourished, you lose weight, and if you are not satiated with water, you become dehydrated. When you lose weight, you lose immunity and then begin to fall to illnesses that you have no business having, like diarrhea, malaria and thyphoid ; and when there is an outbreak of meningitis in that camp for instance , those that are malnourished will die first while those with good food will survive. Malnutrition is a predisposing factor to high mortality among children,” said Dr Babaniyi
Head Dietetics Department at the National Hospital, Abuja, Mrs Sarah Abagi said zero to two years or 24 months is a critical time in the life of every child.
She said it is the time for proper brain development, and potential for academic performance and achievements, adding that there were key nutrients required to build the brain at that age such as iron, zinc and protein.
Abagi said that if a child of that age suffers from malnutrition, it would affects his or her school or work development and performance.
“Once this period is passed, the child’s learning and intellectual capacity is limited, he or she will not be able to do well in school and the child is more likely to drop out of school,” she said.
According to Abagi, the damage between 0 to two years was irreversible while children that were two years and above suffer from a type of malnutrition called Kwashiorkor and could get well when treated.
She said malnutrition in children perpetuates poverty in the family and the country “because that child who is not able to go to school or drops out of school will end up like her parents with limited achievements and not able to contribute meaningfully to the society. It is a vicious cycle.”
She added that the fact that Nigeria has an estimated 11 million malnourished children if not address could portend a bleak future for the country.
Survival of the fittest
While this reporter was still at the camp, some good Samaritans brought bags of beans, and other food stuff. There was so much struggle and rush for it that the bags tore and the contents spilled on the floor. Most women and children who could not match the men in the struggle fought among themselves to have access to pick the spilled beans on the ground. Some of the children were as young as two years old.
Happy, a mother of five packed the few beans together with sand saying she might not gather enough if she picked only beans.
She said she only earns little money to feed her children at least once a day by picking cashews from the neighbouring bushes. She fries them and walk a long distance to town to sell them.
Suddenly , many mothers at the camp rushed towards the reporter as they noticed her writing, with each of them shouting their names at the top of their voices. They also began to form a queue thinking she was writing a list of their names for future food donation. They pleaded with tears in their eyes for food so their children do not die of hunger.
They said they only earn little money from fetching firewood and cashew from the surrounding bushes.
Aside poor donations, the women allege that the hunger situation in the camp was worsened by the fact that leaders of the camp do not share donated materials to displaced people in the camp.
They said the leaders often collect the food and other items and put them in a store under the guise of storing them but later share it amongst themselves or sell it at reduced prices to outsiders, leaving women and children hungry.
They called on individuals and groups donating to the camp to always ask the displaced persons to queue and share the food or materials themselves whenever they come to the camp.
However, chairman of the camp, Philemon Emmanuel denied the allegations saying sometimes individuals or organizations may come with only a bag of rice, and knowing that it wouldn’t go round, the leaders store the materials in a designated booth in the camp so that when they get enough, they would then share it in a way it could go round every one.