Adhele, 35, knew something wasn't right with when her two-year-old son, Piol, stopped walking around. "He wasn't moving, he wasn't playing, he was just lying down," she remembers.
Her suspicions were confirmed when our team arrived to carry out a mass malnutrition screening of the children in Baackuel village.
"They measured around my son’s arm and told me to bring him to the outpatient treatment program. It was a surprise for me that my child was suffering from malnutrition. I felt very sad because no one else had malnutrition in my home," says Adhele, who immediately made the 25-mile journey from her village to the nearest Action Against Hunger nutrition site in Malualkon, a town in northwest South Sudan.
"At the outpatient center, I was given special food to feed my child each day and the doctors told me to continue the treatment for 14 days. In a few days, I could see the change in Piol, he was awake and started growing a bit fatter. I was relieved."
Like so many mothers who have seen their children suffer from life-threatening malnutrition, Adhele and Piol came back to the village with a strong desire to prevent hunger and its effects.
Action Against Hunger helps to treat acute malnutrition, and also to prevent it from occurring in the first place. To do this, vulnerable villages like Baackuel need long-term food security. That’s where our Kitchen Garden project comes in.
As part of the project, Adhele was selected by her community to be among the first in her village to be trained in new ways of growing nutritious crops. Santino Garang, an Action Against Hunger community hygiene promoter, explains that "the traditional way of farming in the area is to plow the land and spread the seeds randomly. Then, the people wait for rain to shower the soil. We are teaching new methods of cultivating the land in small dams and using irrigation from the nearby borehole. The reason we do this is because it ensures food security for when the other crops fail due to drought."
Rains dictate harvest yields in these dry areas in South Sudan. In November, after the rainy season is over, temperatures can reach 100°F. Traditional farming in villages like Baackuel depend on predictable weather patterns. But, as climate change makes shocks more frequent and more extreme, their harvests – which produce the entire village’s food supply – are increasingly vulnerable.
"When I was a little girl, it used to rain from April until November, but now it might start raining in June and stop in October which is a great surprise. Now you can cultivate two to three plots, but you harvest nothing," explains Adhele. Many of the families in the village, including Adhele’s, grow sorghum.
"We don't know what will come of the sorghum we produce each year in our plots. If there is going to be a problem with them because of drought, we don't know what will happen, but we have plenty of greens that we produce in the Kitchen Garden and they will prevent malnutrition."
To thrive in this dry land, the Kitchen Garden needs water. It’s located just a stone’s throw away from the community’s new borehole, allowing for irrigation farming and the cultivation of nutritious crops like tomatoes, okra, onions, kale, watermelons, and pumpkins.
Each day, Adhele fetches water five times to fill about about 11 jerrycans. Recently, she added an additional jerrycan to her load – the extra one is to help her build her own latrine with her husband Garan.
"Latrines have many benefits. For example, children can't just defecate in the open because they can get sick. At night, you should not simply move in the bush where you can get bitten by snake or be in danger of animals like hyenas. But, if you have a latrine, you are safe," says Adhele.
What started as a training by Action Against Hunger on how to build a latrine using local materials has now spread like wildfire across the village.
"I wish that everyone in the village built their own latrine, because it is useful and healthy, even when it rains, you can go there and defecate safely rather than in the open," explains Adhele, who is also a member of the community’s water committee, which spreads the word about hygiene and maintains the borehole.
"I was selected by the community to be part of the committee," says Adhele, "The responsibility given to me by the chairperson, Nyanut, is to keep the borehole clean and litter free. Many people from other villages come to fetch water, some of them come with donkeys that defecate around the borehole, and this can cause diseases. That's why it's my job to keep the borehole clean."
Adhele's neighbors have taken notice of her hard work. "Some people from the community come to me and thank me for the work I do," says Adhele, "Others praise me because they think I'm doing a service to the community."
Adhele's leadership position is helping to reshape the role of women in the village. "It is very good to be part of the water committee, because we have to do many things to show the community that women are confident and capable," explains Adhele.
Moving back and forth from her home to the Kitchen Garden and bringing her jerrycans to and fro to make sure the garden stays green is how Adhele spends much of her day – helping to ensure food security for her family. Working the land with her hands to make the seedlings sprout also brings Adhele a joy she has not experienced before. Learning this new way of farming brings people hope in this village.
"Kale and okra are soon to be harvested, so when I see them flowering, I feel so very happy. We are so happy with the seeds that we received. The entire community is so appreciative of the training we get, and we want to continue learning. More people in the village want to be trained in how to grow in the ways of the Kitchen Garden. We can help prevent malnutrition in our children – this is our deepest wish."