Project Peanut Butter, Malawi: “This Food Will Save Our Children”
She came up to the nurse’s counter and stood quietly, waiting for her turn. Her two infant sons were gently snuggled together in her kitange, so small that she easily carried them both on one hip. She was young, perhaps sixteen or seventeen. She was thin, even a bit cachectic, but her dark eyes shone with determination. Perhaps that is why we all remembered her later. Most mothers come to us with a look of fearful hope, their eyes begging for help. Not this young girl, her eyes were forceful and calm.
“I hear in my village that you will save my sons”, she declared; “so, I am here.” We took the diminutive babies from her and began to ask questions. How old are the babies? we asked. Eight months two weeks, she responded. Our hearts dropped. The twins were too young. Their immature digestive systems would not be able to use the protein in RUTF (Ready to Use Therapeutic Food.). It would give the boys diarrhea and make them even sicker. We could not help her.
Gently we explained the situation. “No”, she said, softly, but with the same boldness. “I know that you are meant to save my children. My husband is dead, I do not have the AIDS, I have work, so when you make my sons fat, we will be fine. I know you can save my sons.”
Again, we explained how dangerous RUTF would be in such young bodies.” She relented, but not completely. “So, when can you save them?” When should I return?”
At that time our cutoff was eleven months, but these two babies would not live that long. Mark Manary stood holding both babies in his arms, as two little fists clasped his fingers. Finally, he told her, “Come back when they are ten months old and we will try the RUTF.”
She smiled and said, “We will all be here on that day”. She walked away, head high, smiling. Our hearts were low. It seemed impossible that those two fragile infants would ever return.
It was an early clinic morning. She stood first in line. “Today is the day you save my sons!” she declared to us and everyone around her. It was indeed six weeks later. The boys were still alive, but so thin. The mother looked even thinner than previously. She explained that she had been using all her food money to buy formula for her sons, which she diluted with water. She fed herself by begging on the streets. We asked her why she would do such a thing. Her response, “Because I knew that in six weeks, you would save my sons”.
The two boys were enrolled in the RUTF program. They gained weight poorly the first month and their young mother’s eyes showed their first glimpse of doubt. At week six, they were gaining weight rapidly. By week ten, the boys “graduated”. Their mother thanked us and started to leave, still quiet and subdued. Suddenly she turned and faced the other mothers and shouted. “This food will save our children. Do not be afraid.” And she walked away.