By the time I arrive at Kantche clinic in rural Niger, it’s 10am and there are already 30 to 40 mothers patiently waiting.
The heat is sweltering and I wonder what these women must have gone through, the hours they must have walked under this unforgiving sun so that their children may be screened and treated for malnutrition.
As I move closer I see the crowd in a sway of activity; gentle bouncing, fanning, soothing – each mother trying to ease their child’s cries.
But there’s one child in particular that catches my eye. His name is Habou.
Out of all the children who arrived at the clinic that morning, he’s clearly in the worst condition. But he also stands out from the others because, despite being visibly sick and weak, Habou isn’t crying.
He’s very calm and keeps his gaze locked with mine the whole time. His mother Tsahara tells me he’s been sick for days on end with vomiting, diarrhoea and fever.
Sadly, Habou is not the first of Tsahara’s children that has fallen sick in this way. Her daughter Saida showed exactly the same symptoms several years earlier – and sadly, Tsahara lost her.
Now, Habou is sick, and visibly malnourished. Tsahara travelled two hours that morning, taking three of her children with her to the health clinic in Kantche in order to have Habou screened for malnutrition and ensure he got the care and treatment he needed.
She couldn’t lose him too – he’s only three years old.
Screened for malnutrition
Once his turn comes up, Habou is put on the scales. He weighs only six and a half kilos – roughly half the weight a boy his age and height should be.
Then the circumference of Habou’s upper arm is measured – all part of the screening process to find out what kind of treatment he’ll need.
It’s less than 10cm, which confirms Habou is badly malnourished and is in desperate need of treatment.
Then he’s given a high-nutrient peanut paste as part of a test to see whether he’ll be able to eat it.
Luckily, Habou takes the paste his mother offers him, but barely has the energy to sit up and take a drink of water from her. He is too weak.
Once they receive their week’s supply of peanut paste and medication, Habou and Tsahara leave the clinic and head towards the ox-driven cart waiting nearby, watched over by one of Tsahara’s older sons drove them from their village around 7km away.
During my time in Niger, I’ve met a disturbing number of malnourished children. It never gets easier.
Every time I see a new case or meet a new child suffering from malnutrition, I find myself filled with anxiety and dread.
It’s such an unnatural state for a child to be in – despite seeing malnutrition up close in rural Niger, day after day, I’m still not used to it.
I know that in their weakened state these children are incredibly vulnerable, unable to fight off common diseases which can too easily become fatal if not treated in time.
Tsahara knows just how fatal these common diseases can be – she’s seen it first hand and suffered through losing her daughter as a result.
I look back at the family as they pack their things onto the cart and begin their journey home. As I watch the family slowly carried away into the distance, I’m left with a slight feeling of relief. At least, I know Habou has what he needs now.
It isn’t until the next day that I find out how the family is getting on.
A remarkable difference
Travelling the same sandy road the mother and her children took the day before, I head to Tsahara’s home to meet up with her and Habou, and see how he’s doing after his first day on the nutritious peanut paste.
The difference is remarkable, and I’m again reminded of how much difference this treatment can make.
Habou is no longer lying still, listless and without energy, but can stand and speak again. In only 24 hours, his strength has started to come back.
A broad smile appears across Tsahara’s face and I can’t help but mirror it. Both of us are filled with hope once more as we watch Habou tearing at the packet of peanut paste, determined to get every last bit.