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At seven years old, Simon Piol was malnourished and relied on food distributions from Concern to survive. Now, twenty years later and in the same area of South Sudan, he is saving the lives of children that are malnourished, just like he once was.
In Aweil, a rural part of the Bahr el Ghazal region of South Sudan, living conditions are hard: the climate is unforgiving making growing food almost impossible; opportunities to earn a living are scarce, and political unrest has caused thousands of people to flee their homes. As a result, hunger is rife. Sixty per cent of the population in South Sudan are food insecure – meaning they do not have access to sufficient amounts of safe and nutritious food for normal growth and development and an active and healthy life. Almost seven million people face hunger, and around 1.4 million of this number is predicted to be children under the age of five.
Twenty-eight-year-old Simon Piol has worked for Concern for two years, working as a Nutrition Assistant at the Majok Nutrition Centre where he screens and treats malnourished mums and babies. Simon lives just a fifteen-minute walk away from the centre and, aside from a few years studying in Uganda, has lived in the area his whole life.
To become a Nutrition Assistant, Simon had to do months of training with Concern: “My favourite part of my job is learning. This is the field of nutrition, and when you get more knowledge of nutrition it is the best thing ever.” Training includes learning how to identify malnourished children with MUAC bands; how to accurately measure children’s height and weight; how to refer children – and mothers – to the appropriate programmes, and how to monitor and report on their recovery.
Now that he is qualified, he spends his days screening malnourished children and ensuring they are enrolled onto the correct nutrition programme. Simon tells us:
I feel good because I’m saving lives. I am saving the lives of children who are at risk of death.
However, there was a time that Simon’s own life needed saving.
Concern came to this area of South Sudan (then, still part of Sudan) in 1998. Simon explains that Concern would arrive, cook some porridge, and families and children from the neighbouring villages would come to eat. Simon was one of these children.
He tells us:
I used to come and eat here. I was malnourished and Concern saved my life. Now, I am working with them and it is something wonderful. Concern is doing a great job.
Over the last twenty years, our programmes in this area have grown and changed significantly to meet the increasing needs of the population, ranging from general food distributions like that in the late 90s, to working on the prevention and treatment of acute malnutrition among the most vulnerable groups such as young children, and pregnant and breastfeeding women.
It is this life-saving nutrition work that Simon carries out every day.
As told by Simon
The circle of life (and humanitarian aid)
This is humanitarian aid well and truly coming full circle, something which Simon echoes when talking about his work with Concern now:
I am happy to help people because if I save lives, they will become great people…
Simon remembers one child in particular whom he has helped whilst working with Concern. “I remember Majak the most. He was admitted because he was so malnourished. Now he has fully recovered after being on our two nutrition programmes.” This was last year. Majak has no mum or dad; his uncle looks after him. Simon adds, “It’s nice to see him now he has fully recovered.”
However, Simon knows we can do more:
If it’s possible, we need to create more [nutrition] sites. In fact, if you go outside of this area, you will get more children who are malnourished. This site is not enough.
Poignant pasts, the necessary now and fearless futures
The ever-changing climate and security situation can mean that, for many people living in South Sudan, the future is uncertain. However, Simon wants to become a nutritionist and has plans to go back to school. “I don’t worry about the future. If you’re confident in what you do, you can’t worry about the future. I have to focus on what I do. My wife knows I try, and I am proud of her.”
In the meantime, Simon will continue working with Concern and helping malnourished children survive.