Social Issues

Colombian region contends with rampant hunger

By Laia Mataix Gomez

Riohacha, Colombia, May 21 (EFE).- Sisters Isabel and Maria Jusayu, indigenous Wayuu people who migrated from crisis-wracked Venezuela to Colombia’s La Guajira province in expectation of a better life for themselves and their children, instead found themselves struggling for survival.

So far this year, 21 children have died of malnutrition in La Guajira, most of whose territory consists of desert and arid plains.

“When we secure half a kilo (1.1 lbs) of rice, we adults don’t eat it, we leave it for the children so they are perfectly fed,” Isabel tells Efe.

Yet the sisters have no thought of returning to Venezuela, she says, as their kids are receiving a “better education” in Colombia than they would in their homeland, even though the youngsters sometimes miss school to help their mothers earn money by doing laundry for others.

The Wayuu have occupied the Guajira peninsula since time immemorial and are the largest surviving group in both Colombia and Venezuela. Never fully conquered by the Spanish, they are accustomed to moving back and forth between the two countries without regard for the border.

The protracted economic downtown in Venezuela has spurred large numbers of Wayuu to seek greener pastures in the Colombian part of Guajira.

An abandoned airport in the municipality of Uribia has become home for nearly 13,500 Wayuu migrants, most of them women who arrived alone, community leader Antonio Jose Jayariyu told Efe.

Isabel recounted the difficulties she and Maria – both pregnant at the time – encountered when they came to Colombia in 2018.

“It was very difficult: how to get money to eat, to get a house. In the beginning we began frying arepitas (flatbreads) and selling them for 500 Colombian pesos (about 12 cents), that gave us enough to eat daily,” she said.

In an arbor that serves as a commons for the Wayuu community of Ishamana, the children draw pictures of things they would like to have – balls, bicycles, homes with gardens – while a nutritionist measures their heights to verify they are developing as they should.

The La Guajira Food Bank has created a program centered on kids under 5 and their mothers.

Among the more than 2,000 families now being helped by the program is that of Wilmer, a 7-year-old with the height and build of someone less than half his age.

Wilmer and his nine siblings suffer from chronic malnutrition, which Juan Carlos Buitrago, director of the Colombian Food Banks Association, describes as “an irreversible illness.”

To detect malnutrition, “the first thing” is a screening that involves measuring the weight, height, and circumference of the upper arm,” La Guajira Food Bank nutritionist Atenas Urdaneta tells Efe.

Once malnutrition takes hold in a youngster, he or she “will never develop like a normal child,” Urdaneta says. EFE lmg/dr

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