Story of Umali

The current economic crisis in Sri Lanka has affected every sector of society and every class of people in this island nation, but it is hardest on those who were experiencing hardship before the crisis began. These families lack a safety net to be able to survive extremely challenging times. Priyantha (40) and his wife, Gayani (29), have one daughter, Umali, who is 2 years of age. Before the economic crisis began, Priyantha worked as a day labourer, finding piecemeal work in rice fields or carrying bricks and performing other odd jobs on construction sites. Since then, he’s needed to travel greater distances to find such work. When he can find work, Priyantha is receiving less pay than before, though it’s rare that he does. There is very little construction occurring these days, and many fields lie fallow due to the shortage of fuel and fertilizers. Gayani stays home with Umali and does not work, in part due to a cognitive disability. Before the crisis began about one year ago, this family ate just one or two times a day. Today, they cannot afford to cook at all.

Umali’s growth chart, provided by the government health clinic and updated at monthly growth monitoring sessions, had always charted in the orange “needs improvement” section since birth. However, about the time she turned 1 year of age – around the same time the financial crisis began, and food prices skyrocketed – Umali’s weight began to fall further, charting in the red “danger zone,” indicating acute malnutrition. When this happened, she began to get sickly, lacking her usual energy. “The midwife said if her weight does not improve, she will have lasting developmental problems, both physical and mental. We felt so sad to hear this. We are uncertain about the future and how she will grow up,” says Gayani. “It was so serious, and we just didn’t have the resources to address the needs.” The midwife recommended that the family buy vitamin supplements for Umali as she was not getting enough nutritious food. The family has struggled to buy them off and on since. “I’m worried about how I will provide for her future when I can’t even provide enough food
for her. I worry about her education. I worry about the clothes she will wear.”

Six months ago, a lead mother with ChildFund Sri Lanka’s Community Response Hubs programme heard about the family’s situation and stopped by Umali’s home, inviting them to the community kitchen that was starting in their neighbourhood. Here, lead mothers and volunteers cook a large, healthy and well-balanced meal three times a week, with the mothers and volunteers supplying the labour while ChildFund supplies the food and equipment. Young children up to age 5 can come and receive a meal here three times a week. Other children and family members are also served if food supplies are adequate.

Back at home, Umali’s family has only been able to afford to buy small, fried snacks sold on the street, so for the past six months, the community kitchen has been the only place that Umali has received a healthy meal. While the family has access to some food like corn and moringa grown on their property, affording firewood and cooking oil has been a challenge for the past year. “She loves to eat the food there, and her weight has improved since she started going,” says Mum. Umali’s weight has, in fact, improved steadily since she began eating at the community kitchen. If it continues along the same trajectory, next month she should cross over from the red “danger zone” to orange. Even though her nutrition levels are still at critical levels, Umali’s health has visibly
improved from six months ago. “She’s so active now and always wants to play,” says Mum. “She’s a very happy child, despite our lack of food at home.”

As part of the Community Response Hubs programme, many families whose children attend the community kitchen also receive support for starting a garden at home. Gayani is hoping to be given seeds, equipment and training to begin her home garden soon, too. Plans are also underway to enrol
Umali in ChildFund’s sponsorship programme soon.