Abe Pollin, owner of the Capital Centre and Washington's pro basketball and hockey franchises, came to northeastern Uganda last week. This is what he saw:
There were children with bony thighs and scabies sores on hollow buttocks who groped through sand to salvage a kernel or two of discarded corn. There were children who scooped muddy water from a hole in a dry riverbed, then walked three miles to carry that water back to their homes.
There were mothers who waited patiently all day cradling thin, listless infants for a ration of corn that might sustain their desperately hungry families for another day or two. And there were other mothers who spent the day gathering leaves and grass for lack of anything else to feed their children.
For two days, Pollin and fellow travelers from Washington, including fund-raiser Nancy Folger and WJLA anchorwoman Renee Poussaint, viewed similar scenes as they explored Karamoja, one of the poorest, most isolated regions in this troubled, drought-stricken continent. By the time they finished, Pollin was both drained and moved.
"Something has to be done here," he said. "We shouldn't just turn our backs and walk away."
A father and a grandfather, Pollin, who is 61, knows what it's like to watch children die, having lost a son and daughter to heart disease. He was determined, as he put it, "to make a difference."
After reading that 40,000 children were dying each day from malnutrition, Pollin contacted officials of the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund and offered to help. He became co-chairman, along with Washington Post Company chairman Katharine Graham, of UNICEF's Washington Advisory Council. Eventually he agreed to raise $230,000 to keep going an emergency feeding and health program here. So far, he has come up with $125,000 out of his own pocket and those of others in the Washington community.
Pollin wanted to see for himself how it was being used and what else was needed. So last week, he traveled 8,000 miles to do so.
Four years ago, 50,000 people died in Karamoja -- half of them children -- when drought and civil strife combined to destroy the local harvest. Only a thin lifeline of emergency food supplies shipped in by international donors has prevented a similar tragedy this year.
But Karamoja still totters on the brink of famine -- and, as is often the case, children are the first to feel the impact. Doctors here estimate at least three-quarters of the children in this province are malnourished.
Some of what Pollin saw here impressed him. He watched with approval as mothers waited for hours at Kaabong health center here to have their children weighed and measured, each one dutifully presenting a UNICEF card that records the child's progress. The smallest children in each age group are given a special feeding supplement. Some are admitted along with their mothers to an intensive feeding program for up to three weeks of high protein meals.
Two doctors -- one Italian, the other Ugandan -- oversee the health center here. They have built a well-stocked and effective hospital where once there was only an abandoned one-room clinic. Fifteen hundred malnourished children get treatment here, 150 of them in the intensive program that is often the only thing between them and death.
Pollin asked Cesar Forni, the Italian doctor who started this clinic, what he most needed and was told a small jeep for $7,000 would enable health workers to make emergency runs into remote villages. "Okay, you've got it," Pollin said. The money, he added, will come from his own pocket.
Some of what Pollin saw and heard disturbed him. Families showing up at the health center with malnourished children have been receiving a supplementary ration of about nine pounds of corn every other week courtesy of UNICEF. Later Pollin learned UNICEF officials in the Ugandan capital of Kampala had decided a few months ago to raise the ration to about 13 pounds -- but the change had not been communicated to workers in Karamoja. He was also bothered by the fact that most of the children are receiving only hard-to-digest corn, rather than protein-rich beans, sugar and edible oil, all of which could help save lives.
But he walked away convinced UNICEF, OXFAM and the other international relief agencies are doing their best for Karamoja. His job, as he sees it, is to ensure they get enough money and to try to interest other American communities into adopting programs of their own.
"It's not enough money, it's not enough food and it's not enough help,"said Pollin, "but without it things would be much worse."