His brown eyes were always happy even though that joy never strolled over to his lips. Baraka rarely smiled. One might say that he was a sad child. But there were two things that always made him smile instantly. The first one was right there, in his parents fence-less compound. Just outside their two room, makuti-thatched house, three coconut trees stood guard. They were so tall that you could clearly see them from the road almost two hundred meters away. Baraka loved to climb them, or any coconut tree for that matter. He would slide up these trees with stunning agility. But whenever he would hit the ground after climbing a tree, his smile would retreat back to his eyes.
Baraka means blessing in Swahili. But for seven-year old Baraka from Ganze in Kenya’s Kilifi County, the blessing of food is hard to come by. In 2007, six years before Baraka was born, Ganze was declared as Kenya’s poorest constituency. It may no longer be holding this unfortunate record but poverty still accompanies thousands of Ganze residents to sleep and yanks them from bed every morning.
When Baraka’s twenty-one year old mother Salama was fourteen and in class 6, she dropped out of school because she got pregnant with him. In Kilifi County where Ganze is located, one out of five teenage girls ends up pregnant. Baraka’s mother was one of them. In 2013 when she got pregnant, seven out of ten people in Kilifi were living below the poverty line and she was also one of them. This is the poverty that Baraka was born into. But the worst was yet to come. Three years later when he was a toddler, he was among the more than 200,000 Kilifi residents who were caught in the clutches of a terrible famine. There were days when the only meal he ate comprised of wild seeds from a local tree known as Mworya.
One warm evening in July 2016, Salama sat on a low three-legged stool in the verandah of her house. Her stomach was empty but the look in her eyes was emptier. Her son Baraka lay at her feet, awake yet asleep. She knew that he was weak. As was his one-year old sister who was suckling her left breast even though there was no milk there. When she looked up and saw her husband walking towards the house briskly, her eyes lit up. Maybe he had brought some food: bread, flour, mchicha… that would be amazing! She felt her heartbeat hasten in anticipation. Well, he did have some food, but not what she had in mind. In his calloused hands was a plastic bag that contained those same wild seeds that they had eaten the previous day.
“Eat this” he said, averting her gaze, “it’s all I could find.”
A few weeks later, the famine slithered back to the dark place where it comes from. But the biting poverty lingered. Even now, four years later, Baraka continues feeling the fangs of poverty every single day. This convergence of misfortunes left has left with the body of a four-year old even though he is seven years. Health officials refer to kids like him as stunted. Yet within his tiny frame is a battered spirit reflecting his mother’s daily struggles to provide food for him and his two younger sisters. She didn’t want to get the third child but her husband forbade her to take family planning pills, insisting that religion didn’t allow it.
Six out of ten African children do not eat sufficient meals on any given day. For them, meals are like finding a job in Africa – you have no idea when you will get it but hope keeps whispering in your ear that a job is around the corner. Job prospects are virtually nil for primary school dropouts like Salama and her husband.
Now pause for a moment and take a deep breath. Do it.
By the time you are done breathing in deeply, a child will have died somewhere in the world. A child dies every three seconds not because of cancer, covid-19 or a road accident but because of hunger. Many of these children are in Africa.
Yesterday, somewhere in Kenya, Liberia, Madagascar or any of the 54 African countries, children died because of hunger. For most of them, their hearts didn’t literally stop beating because they had stayed hungry for days. Rather, their hearts stopped beating because years of irregular meals with insufficient nutrients had left their immune systems battered and vulnerable to disease. For the few years their angelic presence had graced this earth, their food had too little iron; too little vitamins; too little proteins; too little of other critical nutrients. This is why micronutrient deficiencies are responsible for one-third of all child deaths in Africa.
The first one thousand days of a child’s life are super critical for the child’s mental and physical development. Failure to feed children properly during this period can leave them stunted like Baraka and in worst-case scenarios, it can leave them literally dead. This often happens when empowered pathogens keep hammering that weakened body.
Hunger doesn’t kill immediately. Like an evil genie, it saps life gradually. If left unchecked, it goes on rampage and eventually takes away life. In that sense, extreme hunger in children is like a sentence to slow death. If entertained for too long, extreme hunger leads to severe malnutrition, which then ushers in death through the back door of disease.
Thankfully, many children emerge from this shadow of death. However, their lives are bereft of the spark and fulfillment of childhood. Hungry, stunted children do less well in school and suffer from low self-esteem.
Do you remember those afternoons when you could barely focus on your computer screen, not because it was faulty but because your stomach was empty? Because you had missed lunch, you could barely focus. So how are hungry children supposed to focus on blackboards and textbooks? C'est impossible! It is impossible.
Millions of African children do not compete on a level playing field with children from developed countries. Millions begin the journey of life so hungry that they can barely function in school, which undermines their educational foundation. Consequently, their dreams for becoming doctors and pilots crumble into realities of manual labor in the informal sector. Because millions of malnourished children on the continent never realize their potential, child hunger eventually costs African countries as much as 16 percent of their GDP!
Feeding children with a healthy diet doesn’t just save lives, it also saves economies. For every dollar spent to ensure that a Kenyan child has a healthy lunch at school and the parents can feed them healthy meals at home, USD 60 will be saved. A similar scenario in Sudan and Nigeria will see a saving of up to USD 60 and USD 85 respectively!
One in three Africans lives below the global poverty line. Living beneath that dreaded line is more dangerous than living in a war zone. At least in a war zone, you can hide in a bomb shelter. But beneath the poverty line, there is no hunger shelter into which you can crawl into and hide from ever present hunger pangs. This is the tragic plight of millions of African children like Baraka. Back in 2013 when this agile coconut tree climber was born, half of Africa’s children were living in extreme poverty. Sadly, the Kenyan society is yet to grant him and his family a visa to move from beneath the poverty line.
Apart from climbing coconut trees, the second thing that always brings an instant smile on Baraka’s face is the KDF mandazi. It’s a first cousin to doughnuts but crunchier. On those rare mornings when his mama buys three of them for him and his two younger sisters, he always breaks into a massive smile. His small fingers clasp it protectively as he raises it to his mouth. It feels hard in his hands and soft in his mouth. He munches it so happily that it’s almost as if the grains of hair on his head start dancing in delight. When he is done devouring it five minutes later, his palms are left with an oily remnant that he licks until it disappears. Beneath the poverty line, where extreme poverty reigns supreme, a simple KDF mandazi is but a dream.
The World Bank defines ‘extreme poverty’ as living on less than $1.90 per person per day. As Baraka’s life has shown, when a child wakes up into a day that is soaked in extreme poverty, hunger shadows that child from sunrise to sunset. Baraka may not have Covid-19 but the hunger pangs that assault him every day are just as bad, if not worse than the corona virus.
PS/ Most of the data in this story was gleaned from the amazing publication below:
ACPF (2019). For Lack of Will: Child Hunger in Africa. Addis Ababa: African Child Policy Forum (ACPF).