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For the golden opportunity not to be missed - Trinh Hong Son’s Journey to Kon Tum

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son 300With more than 20 years working in nutrition and communication behaviour change, I have had the opportunity to work within many communities and examine different cultures and characteristics. My experiences have also taught me that much effort, time and shared sympathy is needed to change an entrenched habit. As a member of UNICEF's emergency response programme team, I am utilizing this knowledge to help benefit the 10 provinces, in the Central Highlands, South Central and Mekong Delta regions, affected by the worst cases of drought and salt water intrusion in decades.

I have visited the Central Highlands numerous times during the course of my work. That day, as a graduate, l felt something new and strange, which only enthusiasm and youth could overcome the inadequacy of experience and knowledge. As with the lyrics of Nguyen Cuong's famous song, "Just so close, just so far", the people of the Central Highlands always welcome you with a gentle smile. More often than not they are carrying huge baskets filled with agricultural products and sometimes a baby sleeping on its mother's back. It is hard to forget the immense expanses of green, with rubber forests, white coffee flowers and especially the red soil of the Highlands which create a very specific signature of the land and people.

My work with UNICEF has taken me back to the Central Highlands, which since 2015 has been suffering the most severe drought in the past 20 years. While there is still evidence of the arid land and water shortages, green tinges are returning to the hillsides. One afternoon under a blue sky in Kon Tum province, I again caught that gentle smile that is a feature of Central Highlands people. But different to visits in past years, this time their baskets aren't heavy with agricultural produce, but I still saw many mothers with children sleeping on the backs. Their gentle eyes were often filled with anxiety due to the ongoing consequences of historic drought.

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Having been in the nutrition field for many years, I understand the consequences of drought cannot be solved immediately. The green fruit can quickly return to the Highlands once the first rains come, but there are development opportunities for children that only come at certain stages of human life. Venturing around the province only strengthened my resolve that all children from this gentle land should not miss these golden opportunities that come with early childhood development years.

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The province was aware of this threat when, on 16 March 2016, its People's Committee announced a risk level one drought. UNICEF's emergency response programme to support vulnerable people was initiated soon after the Government provided VND17.6 billion (US$784,000) for Kon Tum to cope with state of emergency. Dak To Kan is one of a number of communes UNICEF works in as part of the emergency response in Kon Tum province. Being a mountainous commune in Tu Mo Rong district, Dak To Kan is located approximately 65 kilometres to the north of Kon Tum province , with a population of 3,315 mostly Xe Dang ethnic minority people spread across 624 households.

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A commune health worker took me to visit Mrs. Y Po's family, located in Dak H Nang village. There are three children in her family, with the first daughter 4 years old and twins A Ti and A Ty born in February this year.

As a result of UNICEF's emergency response, A Ti was identified as having moderate acute malnutrition, while the youngest A Ty was detected as having severe acute malnutrition after screening on 30 August 2016. Y Po's family is in a difficult situation. Her husband must work all year round with cassava crops, although it has never been sufficient to feed the whole family. Life has become even tougher as the prolonged drought has seen crop yields plummet. At the moment, her family is still in debt by VND5 million (US$223), a large amount to repay. Y Po confided in me that it was unlikely this year's cassava crops could help her repay her debt and buy food for the children.

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I understood that with the fluctuating weather conditions, it was extremely difficult for Y Po and her husband to work the crops and take care of their children at the same time.

Spending most of her time taking care of her malnourished children, Y Po has no time to work. Thankfully nearly four months of continuous use of nutrition supplies supported by UNICEF and the Government of Japan has seen her second son Y Ty recover from severe acute malnutrition. Under dedicated guidance from medical staff, Y Po now knows how to use nutrition supplies for her child.

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Knowing her children are gaining weight and getting rid of severe acute malnutrition, her eyes lit up with joy when she said: "I hope my children grow up healthy and I will try to bring my children to school so that they will not be poor like me". I'm am also looking forward to a brighter future for her children. The whole social system is involved, bringing her simple desire closer to reality. It warmed my heart to see her eyes filed with love watching her sleeping baby still sucking her breast milk, her hands gently supporting her breast to give her baby every precious drop of milk with love and care.

Saying goodbye to Y Po's family, the commune health worker took me to another family. Seen from the outside, the Y Thoat family house looked spacious compared to the surrounding houses.

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Entering the house, I noticed the family was not as poor as Y Po's, surrounded a dozen sacks of rice and a television.

A Loc is her only son. At home to care for the child, she noticed her son was a little thinner than other children. This timely detection opened the door for UNICEF's emergency response programme to provide nutrition supplies to address this case of severe acute malnutrition.

 

Y Thoat shared with us: “I want my child to stay healthy and grow up and learn well so he can be a doctor to cure the sick people,” said Y Thoat.

“I am grateful for the hard work from doctors and I will be a better parent in the future thanks to Y Ngui (commune health worker). Now I understand my child was malnourished because I didn’t know how to feed him properly, I even think that other poorer families’ children grew up more healthy because they were blessed by god” she said.

I felt truly grateful to Y Thoat for her sincere appreciation of the village health workers, as I understood her as well as Y Po’s and other children in the Central Highlands will not miss on the golden opportunity to grow and flourish because of village health workers like Ms. Y Ngui. 

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She remembers the name of each child and considers Y Thoat as a family member. Another commune health worker, Ms Y Thuyen, does similiar meaningful work in La Don village, Dak Ro Ong commune, Tu Mo Rong district. Although Y Thuyen works each day on low wages, she brings enthusiasm to her work and feels responsible for the children she visits and enthusiastically guides Xe Dang ethnic minority mothers. 

“I really love the children in the village and feel really heart-broken to see them malnourished. Thus, I will always work with mothers to care for children’s nutrition,” said Y Thuyen.

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Despite limited communication skills, commune health workers sincerely care for mothers and use local ethnic minority language to contribute to a better future of their respective communities.

Leaving Kon Tum I know the verdant forests will return to the province as will those friendly smiles and children's eyes will again brighten.

pdfDownload and read the full story here

Story by Trinh Hong Son and Truong Viet Hung

Photo by Truong Viet Hung

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