The last time I was in Timbuktu was 15 years ago when HKI was just developing programs in Mali and we were providing technical assistance to a partner NGO working in the region to carry out a baseline survey on anemia and other nutritional problems. A colleague from HKI and I spent 10 days working with the local team preparing the survey design, finalizing and field testing questionnaires and training survey workers. The trip to Timbuktu was brutal as when we turned off the paved road in Douentza we spent 15 hours crossing usually dry scrubland that had been transformed into mud flats by a downpour. We were thrown around in the back of a double cabin pick-up truck when we were not up to our ears in mud trying to get the truck unstuck.
This time I am accompanying a columnist from The New York Times, Nick Kristof, and his annual “Win-A-Trip” participant, Erin Luhmann and their videographer, Ben Solomon. The trip up was much kinder on our bones – however not for the right reasons. With the Islamist take-over of the North and the military coup in Bamako the security situation means most road travel is blocked. The United Nations have set up air service to several cities – including Timbuktu. But the spirit of the place is far more sober than it was 15 years ago. The tales of the people we meet with are humbling as we learn of what they endured before the liberation of the city by French and Malian troops. It still is hard for me to imagine that Timbuktu – which has been a reference for an Islam of tolerance and welcome for centuries – was taken hostage by such forces. People express a cautious optimism – but the tasks ahead are daunting. We visited a health center where the World Food Program is supporting preventive food distribution for children 6-24 months and their mothers. They are also screening children for severe acute malnutrition. Unfortunately, because the health center is not yet back in full operations since pillaging by the rebels, these children need to be referred to the hospital that is 7 kilometers away. Just one indication of the efforts necessary to reestablish even the most basic of services.
Mali had made major gains in addressing malnutrition – starting to cover many of the costs of distributing vitamin A supplements from the national health budget, mandating fortification of wheat flour with essential vitamins and minerals, and one of the first countries to sign up to the global Scaling Up Nutrition Movement. The clear and present crisis of the security situation is absorbing so much attention and resources we must ensure that we do not let that hide the silent crisis of malnutrition which continues to be the cause of 45% of children’s deaths and leaves many more children with compromised futures because of stunted physical and mental development.