Data is important. Because of data collection and monitoring, UNICEF can report that, “On average, one out of every 11 children born in sub-Saharan Africa dies before the age of 5.” In this example, data demonstrates the magnitude of the problem and serves as a catalyst for people to come together to develop strategies and implement programs to improve child health. Then, with continued data collection and monitoring, progress towards reducing child mortality can be measured.

Sometimes when reviewing data and statistics, it is easy to forget that they are more than just numbers. Every number, in every statistic, represents a person, with a story. I was reminded of this at the last Community Health Worker Review meeting in Lwala, Kenya.

Through Lwala Community Alliance’s Thrive Thru 5 program, there is a team of about 80 community health workers (CHW) who work to keep children in their community healthy. Each month they come together to review the prior month’s activities, challenges and possible solutions to those challenges.

Community Health Workers

At the last meeting we spent much of the morning reviewing each of the past month’s child deaths and how to prevent similar events in the future. The CHW's were very engaged and had great ideas, clearly demonstrating their concern for the children in the area. One CHW said to the rest, “Making these changes might take some effort, but even if we only save the life of one child, it will be worth it.”

Shortly after that we took a tea break. During the break, one of the CHW's went home, just down the road, to check on her twin grandchildren. The CHW (their grandma) has raised them since their mother died in 2012. The girls went to school when their grandma came to the meeting, but at the time of our tea break, the girls would have gone home from school for their lunch break. On her way home, the CHW discovered that the girls had been playing around an open well and one fell in. She was pulled out of the well, but it was too late, she had drowned.

News of the tragedy circulated among the entire group during tea break, yet they still resumed the meeting. Once we finished, one CHW announced that we should go pay our final respects to this child before eating lunch. Soon I was walking down the road with a group of around 80 CHW's and my public health colleagues. They were singing a song in another language. The person I walked alongside, turned to me and translated, “They are singing, Our place in this world is only temporary, heaven is our final home.”

We turned off the dirt road and walked single file, about 200 meters, through a maize field and then arrived at the house. The twin who is still alive was sitting quietly, almost hiding, in the doorway. The child who died was lying in the shade of a banana tree, on a straw mat, with her head resting on a pillow. She was still dressed in her school uniform. The grandmother was knelt alongside of her, weeping. Our group of around 80 circled around. Some women wailed and another led a prayer. The grandma spoke through tears, but it was in the local language, so I don’t know what she said.

As we all walked away I was struck by what a turn of events happened in so few hours. At the beginning of the meeting the child was alive. In fact, the grandma had introduced herself at the meeting with a huge smile and by calling out in this awesome African way, which led to heaps of laughter from the group. She spent the morning discussing how to keep children in the community from dying, only to go home to discover her household was the one with the most recent child death. Suddenly it became so much more personal.

As we all stood around the child and grandma under the banana tree, I realized what a remarkable moment this was. A group of people, who actively work to prevent child death, were mourning with one of their own after she lost her child.

Later in the day, the meeting resumed and there was discussion around if today’s death should be counted in this month’s statistics or next month. This discussion was brief and uncomfortable, as it felt too soon and too personal to be counting this child’s death in the monthly data collection.

Data is incredibly important in improving child survival, but even more important is to remember that every data point, number or statistic represents a real child, with a story. The death of this child is not as simple as being one of the 1 of 11 children who die before the age of 5 in sub-Saharan Africa, but instead represents a grieving family and a loss to a community.