“There is no such thing as happiness when your child is sick.” Confronting Chronic Sickness on the Community Level

It’s hard to keep up while talking to two young mothers in the Bwaise slums on the outskirts of Kampala, simply due to their sheer excitement. Annette Bukiwura is the mother of three beautiful girls. Her neighbour, Lydia Namutebi, is mother to four equally charming children.

As the women recount the extreme challenges they used to face when their children were sick, every sentence is punctuated by enthusiastic “but not now!” and “now it’s different!”. This ‘now’ comes in the form of Rebecca Nakamya, a Living Goods-supported community health worker (CHW), who has been providing her services to more than 800 households for the past two years.

“I used to have a child sick five times per month,” says Lydia. For Annette, it was three times in a month. “There is no government clinic in this area,” Lydia explains. “The only option was a private clinic nearby, and no wonder the children were sick all the time. You would go there and wait a long time because there was no staff. And when you were seen, they didn’t take any time to examine the child or educate you: They would just give you whatever medicine you could afford and a few days later the child would get sick again.”

“There was nothing you could do if you didn’t have the money,” Annette adds. “You would feel so bad and so fed up, always treating your children and then they’re sick again. Just spending, spending, spending! And not just all your money, but all your energy, too.”

This cycle of disease has a huge impact on a family’s general wellbeing. “My older boy missed a whole term in school because he was sick all the time,” says Lydia. “There is no such thing as happiness when your child is sick. My husband would come back with the little money he had earned, and I would need it all for treatment. So he got fed up too, wondering where all this money was going, when the children weren’t improving. It caused a lot of arguments for us.”

“The children were very unhappy,” Annette adds. “They didn’t play, didn’t eat, didn’t drink, so you worry all the time. When your child is sick and not eating, then you don’t eat either.”

Looking at these children today, all wonderful bundles of energy, it is hard to imagine the scenario these two young mothers are describing. But when they met Rebecca about a year ago during her regular door-to-door visits, everything changed. The turnaround these women have experienced is nothing short of astonishing. “It’s nothing like before,” Lydia says with a beaming smile. “The children don’t get sick anymore,” Annette adds, explaining that Rebecca comes to them, takes her time to examine the child properly and give all the information they need on how to feed and treat the children. “And she even follows up to make sure we are all right.”

With the money the mothers are saving on treating their children, they can now afford such simple things as milk and clothes, and pay school fees on time. “Before, the children would get sent home from school because I didn’t have enough money for fees,” Lydia says. And the husband is happy, too. “Now there is some money in his wallet, before the wallet was very angry,” she laughs, adding that there is no more arguing in the home.

“The children have changed completely,” Annette says, with Lydia nodding in agreement. “They are eating well, they are growing bigger, and they are free and happy – not like before, when they were tired all the time.”

As both women list the things they have learned from Rebecca – balanced nutrition, proper treatment, preventing diseases, safety and hygiene – Annette concludes that all this was new to them. “At the clinic they never cared to teach us. Rebecca explains everything, for A to B to C, she cares about the children and the adults.”

“I love her very much,” Lydia adds with a heartfelt smile.

Rebecca says that these amazing stories of change are everywhere in her area. “There is a great improvement overall. Pregnant women get better care, child deaths are down, and the community looks different, the savings are visible.

“I see these children who used to be sick all the time, and now they are healthy and growing. When I see that, I feel so proud. I feel at peace.”

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