Guest Post by Tanya Lasko
– Trigger Warning: Infant Death
Though I have acted as Sarah’s traveling companion many times, this trip is my first experience in Africa. The morning after we arrived, we visited the first of many malnutrition clinics in Angola, in a town called Benguela. As we entered the clinic, the babies that caught my eye had beautiful bronze-colored hair, some more than others. It was a few hours later when I learned that this was one of several signs of malnutrition. My perspective drastically changed once I learned this. At the end of the day, I was seeing many children being discharged and I found my eyes drifting to their hair, looking for signs of improvement with new dark growth. What a beautiful sight.
Malnutrition Feeding Clinics
I interviewed two moms and one grandma at the clinic in Benguela. Overall, the raw emotion that came through was pure gratitude for the opportunity to come here to get help for their babies. The interviews started off easy, getting the names, ages, and why they were coming to the clinic. However, after asking the question, “What concerns you about going home?” the answer of a 26-year-old mom named Maria stopped me in my tracks. “I’m worried I will go home without my baby,” she said.
I felt like I could not get out of the building fast enough. She was there with her 1.5-year-old daughter, Luiza, who was at the clinic with measles, a fever, and acute malnutrition. Maria’s emotions resonated deep within me, and tears ran down my face. These are stoic women, but their fear and worry were present, and I felt it.
It took me a while to engage with another family because of the intensity of emotion with the first mom. The second interview was with a grandmother whose grandson was doing well and she was overly grateful and thankful. She radiated joy knowing her grandson was going home soon. All of our visits to the malnutrition clinics in Angola were like this, full of stories of brokenhearted families, but just as many of hope and healing.
Each day we visited a new malnutrition clinic in a new town. The visits were overwhelming, watching the sick children, feeling the moms’ emotions, not being able to converse more than a greeting and a smile, and seeing the moms rush to the line when it was time to receive food. Some of the women walk a long way to get to the malnutrition clinics in Angola and to watch them load the food items upon their heads while their baby is strapped to their back for the long walk home was extraordinary to me.
One afternoon we went to visit the new BirthAid center in the town of Lobito. Because this is a new program in Angola, the center is operating but is still in the beginning stages. In the first room, there were six babies in incubators and we were shown a new room that they are repurposing to house more incubators. Then, we went to the birthing rooms. They are very basic and remind me of the gynecologist’s office with a table and stirrups. Just outside the clinic were families in the courtyard making food and waiting for daughters, wives, and mothers to deliver. I found this day to be a bit easier emotionally because of the hope and joy I saw in the mother’s faces who I met and interviewed. Many of their babies were improving.
Across the street from the BirthAid center is a very elite hotel with a private beach, and just down the street are beautiful homes. In many parts of Angola, there is extreme wealth just next door to extreme poverty.
Pain, Strength, and Hope
On our final day in Angola, we made one last stop at the malnutrition clinic in Benguela. Just outside the building, we see there is a grandmother sobbing. Her grandbaby stopped breathing and they had just resuscitated him. We walk into the hut and the baby is attached to a giant, 5-foot-tall oxygen tank with an unbelievably small mask attached to his little face. He was making a gurgling sound, which I have unfortunately heard so much, and I think he is not going to make it. At this moment, overwhelming grief strikes, and I just want to leave Africa.
I do not know if this precious baby boy made it, but I hope he has. The reality of death is a daily occurrence here in Angola and to see the anguish and heartbreak in the grandma weighs heavily on my heart.
I am thankful to hear of the progress being made in this country and recognize it is still a struggle. There is so much pain here, but also strength, perseverance, and hope. If nothing else, I can find comfort in the fact that lives are being saved.