Tuesday, April 26, 2005

A few mouths to feed

I apologize in advance for the schizophrenic nature of my blog entries: from wine drinking to water safety to starving children. But I'm learning that such is life in the Peace Corps, a bumpy roller coaster ride in a strange land.

So here goes. One of our tasks during training to is to make a presentation to members of the community about a particularly pressing local issue and try to engage them in ways they might help the situation. After speaking with several officials, my little cluster decided to focus on malnutrition and how it affects children in school.

More than 30 percent of school-aged children in the Philippines are malnourished and our little barangay is no different. Today, we saw how true that really is. We joined a public health nurse as she made house to house visits to children targetted because they are severely malnourished. The barangay tries to help and has a feeding program -- rice, bread and sometimes milk -- for the poorest of the poor. The nurse also tries to educate the moms and offers free health care -- though she says the families rarely take advantage of the health care. They used to just deliver the meals to the homes until they discovered the fathers would come home and eat the food meant for the kids. So now they stay and watch the children eat and take pictures to document their work.

We visited a 6-year-old with cerebral palsy, another boy with a heart condition, and the nurse explained that both were severely underweight and stunted. The 6-year-old was no bigger than a 1-year-old in the U.S., weighing far less than a typical toddler. Our next house call was to a squatter home -- these are makeshift huts crowded together on illegally obtained land. (Of course we have squatters in the U.S.) In my barangay, there are many squatters living along the railroad tracks that run through town and in the back of a subdivision near the rice fields. Whole families live in a single, tiny shack. Sanitation is a huge problem. It makes my host family situation all that much brighter.

At one "home" we stopped to check on an 8-year-old girl the nurse is keeping an eye on. She was about 20 inches long, and perhaps about 10 pounds. She had sunken eyes, a distended belly and bones for limbs. She can no longer sit or stand on her own. There is a right angle in her spine -- she was dropped and it fractured and remains bent. She had bruises on her thighs and back. The nurse said she was a "lost cause" and would die soon. She lives down the street from me in the barangay. I'd never seen a starving child up close like that. We stroked her hair and she cried and shook. The rest of the family seemed like they had been well-fed -- her aunt was even chubby -- so it appears to be some weird case of abuse.

The hardest part is to walk away and not do something. Either there is no money to look after the girl or there are too many children like her to do anything about just one child. I couldn't get a straight answer. So she will die there -- and the nurse says it will be soon. I so badly wanted to call someone and have them swoop in and take her away to a hospital. My language and culture teacher said there was no one to call. There is a social services department but it is apparently too overwhelmed to deal with individual cases. So the kid is doomed.

She is perhaps the saddest case here in the barangay and I imagine there are many more like her. But there are other children living with varying degrees of malnutrition. They will live but will be stunted intellectually and physically.

We have to give a presentation so we decided to present to a sixth-grade summer school class and their parents and talk about nutrition. Just really an educational seminar. It seems like not much and it feels insane to have a discussion about eating more vegatables when an 8-year-old girl is dying down the street. But perhaps it will do some good. The very fact that they are in school means they are much better off than many kids. Only 7 out of 10 kids here make it to the sixth grade. The rest are elementary school drop-outs.

Some of us feel guilty about using this community for training. There are certain things we are required to "practice" or learn without really delivering any substantial benefit to the community. I find it strange but we are trying to do as much as we can while we are here. Some say the Filipinos don't expect much from us and are just happy to talk to us. I don't buy it.

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