I'm in Afghanistan for the first time in six years.
It's a bittersweet return. The last time I worked in the country, I hadn't yet become a mother myself. I have a strong sense that what I'm about to see will affect me in a whole new way.
I'm here for Mother's Day. Sunday evening, after a day visiting with Afghan mothers and children, I'll try for a good Skype connection with my five-year-old son, William, back home in Canada. I smile to think of him proudly showing me the present he's been making, the gift that's been kept "top secret" in his kindergarten classroom. I'll remind him to practice his cello, to be careful on his bike and to eat his vegetables.
The messages of Afghan mothers to their children aren't exactly the same as those in Canada. Still, I expect to be heartened by the changes since my last visit -- thanks in part to our country's strong work on child and maternal health. At the G8 summit in Muskoka, Ontario, three years ago, Canada led other nations to commit funds to save the lives of young children and mothers around the world. And Afghanistan is one of the places where such good-news stories become real-life stories.
Afghan mothers I met in 2007 weren't reminding children to eat their vegetables. Vegetables were still the "new thing." Forget the four food groups that Canadian children can describe in detail -- some children there have never even seen a vegetable. The typical diet for an Afghan villager is tea, rice, bread and perhaps a little meat. Two meals a day at the maximum; often, only one.
But while I'm here, I plan to visit kitchen gardens that will be funded through Canadian donor support to reach more women and children. My World Vision colleagues have told me of eggplant, cauliflower, cabbage and tomatoes -- all of which are nourishing the little ones born since my last visit. For villagers in remote regions, these used to be available only at the closest market, a four- or five-hour trek by donkey. And even if making the trip alone had been culturally acceptable for women, few families could afford the high prices.
Now these colourful, nutrient-packed foods are grown with love by the mothers themselves. So simple, yet so crucial to the children's health. The child mortality rates are staggering in Afghanistan, where more than one in 10 children won't live to see their fifth birthday. Lack of proper nutrition has been one of the key reasons. But in these gardens, we see the seeds of a different future.
Another place where real change can be seen, where children's lives are being saved on a daily basis, is the neonatal unit in the Herat maternity hospital. Here, World Vision has trained more than 200 midwives to work in communities across western Afghanistan. Women who used to journey through pregnancy and delivery without any kind of expert support can now have pre-natal checkups. They receive advice about nutrition and breastfeeding, and help with the delivery.
I'm told that this hospital is a place of miracles, in a country with one of the world's highest infant mortality rates. The extremely high rate of mothers dying from complications in pregnancy and childbirth also remains one of the worst in the world.
I think about the birth of my own son, with its medical complications. Had I been a mother in Afghanistan, I very likely would have died, perhaps even my son would have, too. I wouldn't be here in the world with William this Mother's Day, to read what will undoubtedly be a heartbreakingly beautiful card over Skype on Sunday night. And while I won't get to squeeze him tightly in thanks, I am grateful to be alive, to have a healthy child, and to support this work in Afghanistan so that more mothers can experience the pride and joy a child brings.
I think about the pure potential of every baby who cries out for the first time, and the desire of mothers the world over to help their children survive and thrive. We need to give them the tools they need to care for themselves, and for their little ones. Every mother deserves the joy of hearing her children's healthy breathing after she tucks them in for the night or preparing a meal that she knows will fuel their growth.
Thank you, Canada, for what you're doing for mothers and children in Afghanistan. Happy Mother's Day.