In February 2017, famine was officially declared in two counties in Unity State in South Sudan. Since the nation declared independence in 2011, an outbreak of conflict has fuelled a widespread hunger crisis.
People are accustomed to scarcity in South Sudan. But this year, the situation is devastating. Food costs have skyrocketed, fighting has uprooted at least 3.9 million people according to the United Nations, and half the population faces acute food shortages.
Despite what may look like hopeless circumstances, people still believe things will get better and that change will come. Some of them have decided to do more than wait for change: they have decided to roll their sleeves up and make it happen now.
Service above self
Dr. David Zakaio wasn’t always a humanitarian worker. He used to work in South Sudan’s capital city of Juba. Although the civil conflict and the fighting were happening in places far from where he lived, for Dr. Zakaio, the crisis hit him close to home. He decided to leave his job and the safety of his home and apply his skills as a medical doctor to help people in his country who were suffering.
"I worked as a volunteer for eight months in the areas most affected by the conflict. The situation requires everybody’s help and I contribute with my medical knowledge," Dr. Zakaio said.
He then took a position with Action Against Hunger as a Roving Medical Doctor: "I train health workers at local health centers to identify and treat children with the most serious cases of malnutrition with medical complications," he says. "Whether it is moderate or severe, acute malnutrition weakens the child's immune system and places them at a much greater risk of dying from diarrhoea, respiratory infections, and malaria.”
In Malualkon, in Northern Bahr el Ghazal—where 435,000 people were one step away from famine in July of this year—Dr. Zakaio oversees Action Against Hunger’s emergency nutrition programs at a local stabilization center the organization supports, with funding from the European Union. At the center, severely malnourished children with life-threatening complications are admitted for intensive, inpatient treatment. At the center’s entrance, there is a large patio, a big tree full of birds, and women sit with their children, patiently waiting to see Dr. Zakaio. Inside, there are two rooms full of single beds with mosquito nets.
Days of despair and days of hope
Nyankir is one of those children. Her mother and father walked for eight hours in the stifling heat, carrying their daughter in their arms, desperate to reach the Action Against Hunger stabilization center. As soon as they see one-year-old Nyankir, the nurses urgently call Dr. Zakaio. He quickly detects that she is very dehydrated and suffering from severe malnutrition. Her life is in danger.
"It is urgent to rehydrate her," says Dr. Zakaio as he directs his team. The child is wrapped in her mother´s arms, while her father watches anxiously.
Nyankir has no strength to swallow. The nurse begins intravenous rehydration. Nyankir barely complains, but she blinks with difficulty.
"She is very weak. If she does not improve quickly, we will have to take her to the hospital in Aweil," Dr. Zakaio says. "But it is far, an hour and a half by car. I do not know if she will survive the journey."
The intravenous rehydration continues. More painful waiting. Time slows down; it seems like years are passing. Then, Nyankir begins to respond to the treatment. Everyone heaves a deep sigh of relief. She will be admitted to the center for ongoing inpatient treatment for malnutrition, and the staff will carefully monitor her condition. But the immediate, pressing danger has passed.
In his time working with Action Against Hunger, Dr. Zakaio has helped to save the lives of many malnourished children. There have also been many whose lives he could not save. Days of despair and days of hope. Acute malnutrition is a major public health emergency in several parts of South Sudan.
Dr. Zakaio, who stands over six feet tall, keeps his hopes for his country high. Helping people is just something that is in him, he says. He believes in change. Ending hunger is possible, he says. “My happy days are when I know I am doing my part.”