Words by: Kirk Willcox Photos by: Kirk Willcox and Bob Barker/RovingEye.com

I can clearly remember the first time I met Junaidi; it was April 2007. He was a cheeky little unit, trying to hit my camera lens and basically jumping around as little kids do. I’d just taken some shots of him with Dr Dave Jenkins, SurfAid’s founder and CEO, outside his family house in Katiet village, on the Mentawai Island of Sipora.

I’d seen images of Junaidi before on the SurfAid Mission Statement DVD.

Plus there was a haunting photo of this stunted little kid with sad eyes sitting in a canoe with shell necklaces around his neck - it had been used in a SurfAid information booklet. Stunted means undersize for his age, a result of malnutrition. I’d only been with SurfAid a few months and that April field trip with our international board was the beginning of my new life living in Indonesia. I’ve seen a lot more stunted kids since throughout the Mentawai.

In a way Junaidi was like a little mascot for SurfAid – he represented so much of what we were trying to do. If we were a footy team, he’d be the grommet running out with the ball ahead of the team.

Late last year I got an email from the field saying that Junaidi had died. I was stunned, literally rocked – it was the same shocked feeling as if losing a close friend. It hit me that hard and tears welled up. Then I found out it was a mistake – it was his older brother who had died, not Junaidi. But still very sad of course. Our anecdotal research shows up to 25 per cent of kids in the worst Mentawai villages, worst as in health-wise, don’t make it to the age of 12.

They are taken out by a combination of factors – chest infections are big killers, as is diarrhea, problems at birth, maybe getting an infection from a dirty piece of bamboo that’s been used to cut the umbilical cord, and malaria - all underscored by an inherent weakness from malnutrition and anaemia. A weak body is prone to infection, and that becomes a multiplying effect. The cemetery along the concrete coastal path between Katiet and Sao, which is full of tiny graves, is a stark reminder of life, and death, in the Mentawai villages.

Dave first met Junaidi two and a half years ago while he was walking along that path linking the dusun (sub-villages) of Katiet, Mongan Bosua and Sao, which lie along the bay that curves south to the world-famous surfing reef of Lance’s Right.

“Passing his house I noticed he was very skinny so I started talking to his parents and then noticed his sister,” Dave recalls. So he asked to look at their house – Dave has a habit of going into villagers’ kitchens to see what’s in the cooking pot – then he can get an idea of their diet. In Junaidi’s kitchen, he found a pot full of taro and banana that the kids ate twice a day. He took a photo, as he knew that meal alone did not provide a balanced diet with the necessary vitamins and minerals needed for basic health.

He then had Junaidi and his sister weighed using a nearby copra-weighing machine and found them both to be "red liners" on the weight-for-age health chart, namely, severely malnourished. “They both had chronic sores and scabs and Junaidi was a tired boy well behind in his intellectual development in that he could hardly put some words together at the age of about four,” Dave said.

Dave advised his parents about the problem and suggested that they take their kids for monitoring and de-worming at the nearby health clinic in Sao.

“I also escorted them directly behind the house to show them the endless supply of kangkung, a native spinach high in iron, that is growing wild in the swamp behind them and I showed them how to use it along with other nutritional advice.

“Every time I came back to Katiet I made a point of stopping in and reinforcing the messages, as did our staff when the Community Based Health Program began.”

Dave said that on one occasion he visited, Junaidi’s father Marulis was preparing tomatoes to give to Junaidi. “That was a clear sign that he was changing his behavior and at this stage I noticed that Junaidi had gained weight, the scabs had healed and he was running around full of energy.

“And now Marulis has started to grow and buy veggies. However, the damage has been done. It’s very likely that Junaidi will remain stunted but now not as bad as before, and his IQ has been affected and he will struggle at school. But his chances of living and not dying like his brother, I’m not sure what he died from, are much better and he will now reach much more of his born potential than he was previous to SurfAid coming along.”

Katiet program manager Matt King also knows Junaidi and his family as he recently spent seven months living nearby while building the Quiksilver SurfAid Community Health Training Centre.

“We hired Marulis to work on the site in September last year, and he was part of the team that constructed the Centre until December, when we changed the rotation,” Matt said. “I think his main income source is fishing and collecting crayfish.”

Since that working relationship, Marulis has dropped into the Centre regularly to talk and share ideas with Matt about gardening and health.

“He has since started a small sweet potato garden outside his home and although he has not adopted the compost idea, it is a start,” Matt said. “When I first met him he was reluctant to establish a garden - not seeing the purpose or need.”

But Matt has noticed the children are full of life, spending a lot of time away from the house, and often playing around the Centre and swimming in the adjacent river.

“I noticed the difference in their energy levels over the seven months that I was out there,” he said. “And when I return I will also spend more time with Junaidi’s family to see how we can keep this momentum going.”

Junaidi’s mother has since had another baby, a girl. When Dave last saw her during her pregnancy, she appeared to be a healthy mum. SurfAid research shows that 65.9 per cent of pregnant Mentawai mothers are anaemic, namely, there’s not enough iron in their diets.

“SurfAid is applying recent science that shows the ability of a newborn baby to fight infection and survive is partly related to the micro-nutrient level of the mother,” Dave said.

Dave and Matt headed back to Katiet in July to train SurfAid staff at the Centre to analyse families equally as poor as Junaidi’s, but who have well nourished children, so as to demonstrate to other families how better nutrition is possible despite impoverishment.

“Creating observable success stories like Junaidi is key to creating behavioral tipping points that move across entire communities,” Dave said.

Kirk Willcox is the Communications Director of SurfAid International. {encode="kirk@surfaidinternational.org" title="Email him here"}.

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