Food Distribution, Colombia

written by: Lisandro Torre
posted in: 2011, Colombia

June 1, 2011

Beneficiaries wait their turn at Distribution Day, where IRD distributes aid to displaced families.

On Tuesdays and Fridays IRD does distributions of aid for displaced families. The (mostly) women sit on chairs under an IRD tent and wait to be called – from there they go into the office where they are interviewed and a survey is taken. After that they go back outside where the children under five are weighed and have their height taken. Families with children under five get extra food and IRD monitors how the children are growing, looking out for malnutrition, stunting and wasting. If a case is found, the child is referred to the Center for Nutritional Recuperation, which I wrote a little about in the last post (that is where I met Lady). The child is supposed to stay there for 30 days until he or she is fully recovered. And they do a great job, too. Earlier I told you how I went to that nutrition training; during that training, the presenter showed a series of very malnourished children they had treated. They were the worst cases they had seen. On Friday, Ibeth, the IRD staff member who had taken me to the training, pointed out a child who was running around, telling me that this was the same child from the one of the pictures from the training session.

On Friday I helped with measuring the children (later I will help with interviews). If the child is over 2, they can go on a regular scale and we take their height standing up. If the child is under 2, they are weighed on an infant scale and their height is taken lying down. We then compute the child’s Z-score (look at me applying what I’m learning in school!) to assess their nutritional status. Most of the children are “at risk for malnutrition,” and a lot of them are adequate.

A girl at the nutrition center.

We had one case on Friday where the child was “malnourished,” so we had to refer the mother to the Nutrition Center. She said no. Ibeth asked her why she didn’t want to take him and what the mother was worried about, and the mother just held her son and said, “No, no, no, it’s my son.” Ibeth asked her if she was afraid that her son would be taken away from her and the women just kept saying “no” over and over again. She told us that she would take care of him, that she could take of him. Ibeth was very reassuring and kept telling the woman that it is what is best for the child and to think of the child and she could visit every day. And the woman just clutched her kid and was shaking her head. Other mothers butted in and started telling her that she should just take her child there, just to see what they said. One other mother said that her friend’s child had gone and came back very healthy and beautiful. Then the nurse threw in the kicker, which I had been worried about and waiting for, adding, “it’s only 30 days.” Then the mother just said, “It’s my son, it’s my son, it’s my son.” We gave her the referral and let her go.

It seems like a terrible spot to be in: you’re displaced and in a new town, you are trying to reorganize your life and then people that you don’t know tell you that they want to take your kid away for 30 days. I can’t imagine what that feels like. It’s hard on our side, too, because, in the end, it’s probably best that the kid gets help. But I was there on Thursday, and they do a good job getting the kids healthy, but they don’t give the kids a lot of personal attention, or hold the kids or, in some cases, know the child’s name. That can’t be easy for the child either. I don’t have a solution, I don’t know what’s going to happen to that mother and her son and all I can hope is that she is so scared of losing her child that she changes his diet or does something to help get his weight up.

On Friday I also met the final member of IRD’s Tumaco team, a woman named Carmen. Her role is to work at the municipal office where displaced families go for help. She knows the system better than anyone I’ve talked to and she is supposed to guide people to the right office and tell them the timetable for them to be in the national system and orient them to the process and their rights. She herself was displaced in 2002, and I talked to her about her life and the process and her role. She is one of those people who is always working to improve herself and has been working non-stop since she arrived to improve her situation. She started a bakery, which was successful enough where she could move her family into an apartment. She was hired by IRD and now wants to learn how to use computers to make her work easier so she can help more people. She is difficult to describe, but her smile and attitude were contagious and it comforts me to know that she is one of the first people that people who are displaced to Tumaco meet.

Then came the weekend. My only plans for the weekend were to start running, read, swim in the pool they have where I’m staying and go to the beach. Richard introduced me to a restaurant at the end of my street where they sell very good seafood for a reasonable price. It’s called Guapi and it is run by and a group of five women. I have been going there every day for a meal and they treat me very well. They are happy when I come and serve me a different meal every day. My meal starts with fish soup, then the main course of fish, or shrimp or crab or oyster (I think, they say conchas, but I’m not sure what it is – it kind of looks like small oysters) and some delicious fruit juice. I’m smitten with the place and plan to keep going daily as it’s my best opportunity to get to know people outside of work.

When I went to go see the road on Wednesday, I noted to the engineer traveling with me that everyone had a TV, even in a place where people seemed very poor. He said yes, that most people found a way to get a TV and a big speaker system, which was a status symbol. I have spent the weekend hearing people’s status symbols. Everyone is blasting Rhumba – it’s everywhere and it’s loud and all the sounds overlap to the point where it is no longer music, just a background thumping noise. I hear neighbors’ systems late into the night; you walk down the street and everyone is blasting their music; it’s the same at the beach where there are a bunch of kiosks where they sell drinks and food and each one has their own music, which is lost in the music of 40 other kiosks. I went to the beach tonight with a co-worker and his girlfriend and as we were walking through the kiosks he just looked at me and said, “the people here like noise.” I guess that sums it up.

Making weigh-in fun.

At the beach I drank coconut water right out of a coconut that had been iced and it was delicious and felt very decadent (my standards are low). I jumped in the water, which was warm (or as my co-worker described, “rica” or delicious – everything that is nice here is described as rica: the sea is rica, the weather is rica etc.). I sat there with my coconut watching the sun go down and it made me remember and long for the Peace Corps and Uganda. It feels familiar, it feels right and I wish I could work in this type of environment for a long time (but not alone).

Next week there is a boat called Comfort coming from the US bringing aid for people here. IRD is going to help distribute what they are bringing and they were also asked to organize three groups for training, a group of social workers, nurses and traditional birth assistants. We went to meet with the president of a local association of Traditional Birth Assistants (TBAs) who said she would organize people, but said that she did not want the hospitals (where we had gotten her information and where we were going to go to see about the social workers and nurses) to be involved in choosing them. There is tension here between hospitals and TBAs (as there is in a lot of places) because the government and the hospitals are trying to have mothers use TBAs less and deliver more in health centers. The president told us that the association has been around for 35 years, had over 250 members and how she alone had delivered over 8,000 babies. The hospitals later told us that they are trying to encourage more births in health centers, but conceded that they need TBAs, especially in rural areas where there are few health centers.

On Monday we visited the three groups and set up the trainings, and we got to go to the nutrition center and see Lady. I held her for a bit (I’m planning on going twice a week until she is discharged). She weighs 6.99 kilograms (15 pounds) and is 75cms (29.5 inches) long. I will update on her progress, and I hope to send a picture of her smiling before she goes.
Tuesday was distribution and I spent the day doing nutritional data entry and occasionally weighing babies. There were a lot of families and it took all day, which is good practice for me.

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