How a nun-turned-doctor in the heart of Tanzania has teamed up with the world’s largest humanitarian agency to help mothers and babies win the fight of their lives
For more than twenty years, Sister Maria Borda has served as a doctor and nun at the Makiungu Hospital near Singida Town in central Tanzania. Founded and run by the Medical Missionaries of Mary and built of sandy yellow cement, the hospital sits on a high central plateau and features a lush courtyard filled with purple jacaranda trees — a verdant oasis amid an arid landscape.
As head of the hospital, Dr. Borda has delivered thousands of newborns here — and watched entirely too many of those babies succumb to disease and infection. Such illnesses are often hastened by malnutrition, poor hygiene, a lack of education or a combination of all of the above.
We met one of Dr. Borda’s youngest patients — a 10-month-old baby named Kelvin — in the acute malnutrition ward of the Makiungu hospital. Cradled in his mother’s arms, he looked more fragile than a newborn. The skin covering his withered thighs sagged off his tiny frame and hollow cheeks revealed the delicate bones of his skull. Inky blue iodine covered his mouth to stave off sores caused by a riboflavin deficiency from becoming infected. Kelvin was almost too weak to move or cry. He lay very still, watching the world with eyes that bore the glassy, vacant look of a much older and world-weary person.
Dr. Borda told us Kelvin had contracted a diarrheal disease — most likely cholera — that prevented his body from properly absorbing the scant nutrients his mother could provide; she was too malnourished to produce enough milk. Without a car or bicycle, the trek to the nearest hospital would have meant many hours on foot with a very sick baby, so Kelvin’s mother tried to wait for his health to improve for as long as she could until it was too late. By the time Kelvin arrived at the hospital, his tiny body had shut down.
Acute malnutrition robs the body of its ability to process nutrients. In the most severe cases, victims have no desire for food at all. Dr. Borda said it was doubtful Kelvin would survive the night. She knelt at his mother’s bedside and tried to soothe her with whispered prayers.
Kelvin died two days later.
“Looking into the eyes of someone dying of hunger becomes a disease of the soul,” says Roger Thurow, a journalist and author who has spent the past year documenting the lives of young mothers and their babies in hunger hotspots like Guatemala, Uganda and India. “Because you know their death is entirely preventable.”