A life saved for 50p – By Rob McNeil, Reuters

July 24th, 2008 Print Print Email Email

I watched as a woman’s life was saved last week. It cost 50p.

The woman’s name was Unda Awka, she was about 45, and her emaciated body looked like a pile of coat hangers covered in a thin layer of dark, crumpled crêpe paper. (more…)

I watched as a woman’s life was saved last week. It cost 50p.

The woman’s name was Unda Awka, she was about 45, and her emaciated body looked like a pile of coat hangers covered in a thin layer of dark, crumpled crêpe paper.
She was in a village called Okarey-af in the Afar region of Ethiopia and I was there with Oxfam and the photographer Nick Danziger to document the catastrophe that is unfolding in the Horn of Africa as a fatal combination of spiralling food prices, drought and conflict have pushed millions to the edge of starvation, and some – like Unda – to the brink of death.

Unda was lying on the floor of a hut made of sticks when we arrived. She barely had the strength to talk, and made little sense when she did.

“She is hungry, but we can’t buy food,” one of the villagers told me. “We have nothing to buy food with, and the prices are too much.”

In fact food prices in the area have doubled, and in some cases quintupled, while the value of livestock – which is the only source of income for most people – has collapsed.

The only food available for her was a small quantity of flour and water paste.

Unda had been trying to eat this paste but couldn’t swallow it, and, by the time we reached her, she was reckoned by the nurse we were travelling with, Valerie Browning, to be two days from death.

Elsewhere in the village people had been eating the emergency animal food they had received to keep their skinny goats alive. “It hasn’t made me ill yet,” one of the men in the village told me. “We soak it and then boil it. It tastes OK – I think it has some biscuit in it.”

Thankfully for Unda, Valerie had brought some baby food which was mixed up in a cup and which, when Unda was lifted to sit, she guzzled down without stopping for breath.

I had rather grimly expected her to immediately throw it up, but she didn’t – she wiped her mouth and sat and looked at us, awestruck by the simple act of swallowing.

Five minutes later Valerie mixed another cup for her and she swallowed that down ferociously too. Within 90 minutes Unda was grinning widely and cracking jokes.

The box of baby food that saved her life had cost 50p and was enough to keep her going for two days. After that she would be strong enough to eat the other foodstuffs that we had delivered.

It’s odd how ordinary it seemed to watch someone’s life being saved, and how simple it was to do it. There are another 14 million people at risk of severe hunger in East Africa. Saving their lives is not rocket science.

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