A Father's Fight to Feed His Children

As World Food Day approaches, celebrating the children who have overcome deadly hunger
Joseph Ngolemwai, a Kenyan widower, makes coal to provide for his three young sons. Photo: S. Hauenstein Swan

Editor's Note: This piece is the second in a series leading up to World Food Day on October 16th. We're proud to be highlighting some of our nutrition success stories from West Pokot, Kenya, and wish to extend our gratitude to partners UNICEF and ECHO (The European Community Humanitarian Office) for supporting these programs.

Thick smoke surrounds Joseph Ngolemwai as he digs his spade into the ground. With a deep grunt he heaves it back out and throws a pile of mud onto a mound of smoking firewood.

The 32-year-old is making charcoal. It's tough work and it sometimes takes days for Joseph to make enough to sell at the market.

Caring for three little ones on his own

Joseph’s wife sadly died six months ago as she tried to cross the river during a flood. As a single father and sole provider for three young boys, Joseph now needs to make more charcoal than ever to provide his children with enough food to eat.

His youngest son, nine-month-old Kiptoo, has severe acute malnutrition. He was diagnosed when Joseph took his sons for polio vaccinations at the local health center in West Pokot, Kenya, and an Action Against Hunger community health worker screened the children for malnutrition.

Symptoms masked by false appearances

Joseph was surprised to hear his son was malnourished, as he thought he looked the same as the other children his age in the village. But our health staff were able to explain that appearances could be deceiving, and enrolled Kiptoo into our outpatient treatment program. He could be treated at home with packets of Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Foods and visit the clinic every week for check-ups.  

“It is difficult to understand that my son is sick because he doesn't act sick. However I do know that he doesn't have enough nutritious food to eat. Now I will go back to the center and see what else they can do for him.”

Joseph Ngolemwai, West Pokot, Kenya

Joseph’s children usually eat ugali every day, a traditional corn paste staple. So when Kiptoo first tried his new therapeutic foods at home, he initially felt sick as his body reacted to the new nutrients.  

“My son did not look sick, so when he was ill after eating the new foods I was worried," Joseph explained at the time. "I decided to stop him from eating the new food and instead he eats ugali with the rest of the family.”

A new understanding, and a path back to health

That was three months ago and unfortunately Kiptoo remained severely malnourished, growing worse every day. Community health workers, trained by Action Against Hunger, decided to visit Joseph’s family to understand why Kiptoo hadn’t been back to the clinic.  

They carefully explain to Joseph that the stomach upset Kiptoo experienced would go away; he needed to come back to complete his treatment, to get more nutrients than the ugali could give him. 

“It is difficult to understand that my son is sick because he doesn't act sick," Joseph said. "However I do know that he doesn't have enough nutritious food to eat.  Now I will go back to the center and see what else they can do for him.”

Like many families in West Pokot, Joseph is accustomed to treating sickness with traditional medicines, which can sadly prove dangerous for malnourished children. Luckily Joseph now has the support of community health workers who will help him make sure that Kiptoo gets the treatment he needs to recover and thrive.

As Joseph tackles his burning charcoal his eyes flash with determination. This is a man on a mission, a man who loves his children deeply and will do anything to keep them safe and healthy, even if it means trusting in something new and unknown.   

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About Elisabeth Anderson Rapport

Elisabeth Anderson Rapport, Senior Communications Officer

Elisabeth is Action Against Hunger's senior communications officer, reporting on our impact and current events around the world.