Nata Ouedrago, who has three sets of twins, received help from Maranites of Holy Cross to cope with malnutrition in Burkina Faso. The sisters have established a remote medical center to address rampant malnutrition. (J.D. Long-Garcia/CATHOLIC SUN)

YALGO, Burkina Faso — During a famine, babies starve because their malnourished mothers don’t have breast milk. It’s even worse with twins.

Nata Ouedraogo, who has three sets of twins, knows this all too well. She’s receiving nutritional help from the recently constructed Blessed John Paul II Center, a medical center run by Marianites of Holy Cross.

At the Blessed John Paul II Medical Center, children’s arms are measured when they’re evaluated for malnutrition. (J.D. Long-Garcia/CATHOLIC SUN)

Ouedraogo gets practical advice about food and how to make nutritious porridge for her children. Mothers receive corn flour, fish, spinach, milk and pasta flour. They learn different recipes for couscous. Oranges and eggs have vital nutrients, the sisters explain.

The World Health Organization estimates that more than 27 percent of Burkinabé children under 5 are malnourished. That’s the 10th worst rate in the world.

“Mother doesn’t have milk, and when she does, it doesn’t have vitamins,” explained Marianite Sister Pauline Drouin, who is originally from Quebec. Mothers also receive rice for themselves.

The center is just getting started, thanks to support from Caritas Spain, which constructed the buildings, and the local parish, Holy Family of Nazareth Parish. Catholic Relief Services kicked in what it could, which was around $5,000 from private funding.

Plans are underway for radiology, maternity and intensive care units. It’s the only medical center for more than 60 miles. The distance is insurmountable given most travel by foot and few by wagon.

There’s no ambulance. And even if these farmers could get to the hospital, they couldn’t pay for the treatments. There’s one medical doctor for 52,000 inhabitants.

The sisters have planned more buildings for the equipment that’s already been donated. They will also build a place to keep babies who are in critical condition. Sr. Pauline said they’ve lost 12 babies — most were twins — because they couldn’t keep them in intensive care and had to send them home.

The first day the center opened, the sisters tended to 200 children. The next day, there were 100.

“The children are not used to eating,” Sr. Pauline said. “If they come with other children, it’s easier to get them to start eating. Malnutrition is all over.”

Aline Sawadogo was at the center Oct. 23 with her seven-month old girl, Louise. It was the first time she’d been to the center. “My child is sick,” she said. The porridge she was making her child wasn’t cutting it.

Life in this part of Africa, called the Sahel, is hard. The Sahel is the strip of desert between the Sahara and the tropical climate farther south.

“The drought is causing this malnourishment,” said Fr. Maba Clima, pastor of Holy Family. While it’s Catholic supported, those whom the sisters care for are Muslim. Polygamy can complicate the famine.

“We know mothers are giving birth every day,” he said. “The need is great.”

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To learn more about the center, email Sr. Pauline,