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Lack of food stunts Chad children, damages minds

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There is no electricity in the village. That means there are no refrigerators. So even when people here are able to buy vegetables, the only ones that make it to this remote backwater are preserved. Youssouf’s mother keeps the dried vegetables on a pot lid, stored behind a curtain. Each week, the little boy is allowed a few tiny pieces, like a treat.

Malnutrition and disease are intertwined, with lack of food leading to a weakened immune system and illness. Youssouf’s older brother wasted away and is buried in the village cemetery, which mostly holds the tiny graves of malnourished toddlers. Youssouf himself was so weak that he almost died from a fever at around 8 months old. Mahamat was sick too. So was Nasruddin. Achta barely made it.

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That they didn’t die is a victory for their families. They are the ones that slipped through the noose of malnutrition, but at what cost?

Under the microscope, the permanent damage done to the brain is unmistakable. In an often-cited survey done in Chile, researchers compared brain cells from healthy and malnourished babies. A brain cell from a healthy child looks like a tree in bloom. The one from a stunted infant looks like a tree in winter.

The branches are the synapses, which connect one brain cell to another. Simply put, the brain cells of a malnourished child are less able to communicate with each other. Researchers have found that height in childhood is directly related to success in adulthood, with a 1 percent loss in height due to stunting leading to a 1.4 percent loss in productivity, according to the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The children in this first-grade class are on average 4.3 inches shorter than they should be.

Guidigui says that he sees the effects of stunting every day, an hour into the school day. The kids, he says, are not there anymore. They stare through him. They use their fingers to trace the ridges in their desks. They play with their clothing. He says he often feels like giving up.

Late one morning, he lets the class out for recess at 11 a.m. Then he sits, splayed out on one of the bunks. A few minutes later, he steps outside and announces that school is dismissed. "There’s no point," he says.

In Chad and several other countries in Africa’s hunger belt, the United Nations’ World Food Programme has tried to address the problem by sponsoring school canteens, offering a free lunch. In Louri, enrollment ballooned as families signed up their kids, says school director Wardougou.

But for Achta and her friends, it’s most likely too late. It’s the first 1,000 days of life, through the age of 2, that are critical. Even if a child gets more food later in life, the damage cannot be reversed.

At Elementary School No. 1, the star pupil is a girl called Fatme. She throws her hand up to answer each question. The teacher has stopped calling on her in an effort to get the other students to participate.

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She only gets to show off when no one else in the class is able to answer, like during a math lesson.

The teacher writes the following problem on the board: 1 + 1 (equals) ——.

"Anyone?" he says. When no one else volunteers, he finally calls on Fatme.

The lanky girl walks to the front of the class and takes the chalk from her teacher’s hand.

"Sir," she says. "The answer is one plus one. That equals two." She carefully writes the number two on the board.

"Correct," says Guidigui.

The only problem is, Fatme isn’t 7. Fatme is 15 years old.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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