Marylyne Malomba calls me from the dark. She is managing International Medical Corps’ nutrition program in Nigeria’s Borno State—where a nine-year insurgency has killed more than 20,000 people and displaced more than 2 million—and the guesthouse generator has gone out again. But I quickly learn that in light of the other times Marylyne has had to sit in the dark—when hiding from violent Boko Haram militants, for example—it’s a calm night, despite the broken generator. And she’s got bigger things on her mind.
Marylyne comes from a large family in Bungoma, in western Kenya. Her father, a banker, moved around a lot; her mother, a nurse, worked nonstop to support six kids, each about two years apart in age. When Marylyne was 10 years old, her brother got seriously, inexplicably ill. For reasons that remain mysterious to this day, his legs swelled dramatically, impairing his ability to walk for months. This only strengthened Marylyne’s resolve to work in the healthcare field.
At university, she signed up for health courses just as the program was integrating nutrition for the first time. She found her calling there, but did not find many opportunities in the field when she graduated, so she ended up working in food manufacturing for a couple of years. Still, Marylyne could not shake her desire to work with children, so she started volunteering in a children’s home in Nairobi, playing with and helping feed the kids. Next, she volunteered at a public hospital that served terminal patients who could not afford private healthcare, where she helped severely malnourished children in the pediatric ward. Finally, she found an NGO job and started her official humanitarian career.
For this job, Marylyne worked with a population of pastoralists, who typically survive on small meals and lack permanent homes. Security was a constant concern for her, as fighting between communities often broke out over cattle, pasture and other dwindling resources. She and her colleagues would travel to very remote places and get stuck on muddy roads, unable to get where they were headed. A few times, she had to sleep in makeshift tents or vehicles because the team could not get back to the office or guesthouse in time. The work was full of obstacles and frustrations, but inescapably essential and rewarding.
When that program ended, Marylyne got an offer from an NGO in South Sudan, another highly insecure place. She says people always ask her why she chooses to work in such risky settings. Her answer: because so few people will go there. It’s where she can make the biggest difference.
Still, the risks constantly test her resolve. In her first six months in South Sudan, a civil war broke out. “It was really, really bad,” says Marylyne. “People from the two different tribes at war would even threaten to kill each other in the office, so we couldn’t go to work.” With the airports closed and no way to evacuate, she and her five colleagues had to lock themselves in the guesthouse with expiring food and too little water. “The tribes in South Sudan sort out their issues with aggression,” says Marylyne. “They’ll fight before they’ll sit down and talk.”
Marylyne stayed in South Sudan for two years, but says, “This kind of life takes its toll.” In addition to dealing with extreme heat and rampant malaria, South Sudanese people have endured so much war and fighting that they “lack interest in long-term capacity building”—maybe because survival is the daily goal. “So you end up doing your job and many other people’s jobs,” says Marylyne. “It’s exhausting.”
As a woman in a stubbornly patriarchal society, she also struggled to gain the respect of men in the communities. She recalls going into community meetings where men would stand up and walk out as soon as she started talking. But she and her colleagues persevered. They kept visiting communities no one else would, and feeding starving children. In areas inaccessible by road due to conflict and heavy rains, helicopters had to drop off food, and the nutrition team had to find its way there to ensure that the malnourished children and mothers were able to receive the food in time. Eventually, “the men started to see the effect of the services—how much healthier and happier the women and children looked with proper nutrition,” she says.
After a short, restorative break, Marylyne took a job with International Medical Corps in Nigeria, where she has helped lead a rapid scale-up of our food-assistance project in the region. The nutrition needs in Borno State are severe, but “nobody really knew about it until the war,” when Boko Haram captured global headlines with the kidnappings of young girls in Nigeria. The areas in which Marylyne works have been largely inaccessible by the humanitarian community, leaving many of the 13 million Nigerians who suffer from hunger cut off from desperately needed aid.
Marylyne says shootings and bombings are frequent occurrences in Borno State. She had been there only two months when militants from Boko Haram entered the small village next to International Medical Corps’ office and “just sat there.” Marylyne and her colleagues had to turn off all the lights and sit in the dark. Eventually, they snuck back to the guesthouse to sit there in the dark with their grab bags. Several stressful hours later, they heard loud bombs and then everything got eerily quiet. They found out later that the military had bombed the entire residential area until they could ensure all the militants had died.
The basics of food distribution are extremely challenging in Borno State. Marylyne has experienced a number of security incidents while trying to deliver food at camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs). Frantic, hungry people sometimes swarm the food trucks, and there are many times she feels afraid. “You feel helpless in the middle of people who are really discouraged and desperate,” says Marylyne. The hardest part for her is the innocent children who cannot grasp what is happening around them. “What kind of life are they going to have?” she asks with palpable frustration. “They don’t have meals or education basics. They can’t even walk around and play outside.”
For her, I can hear, this is the why. Despite all the insecurity, the risks, the obstacles and the pain, this is what keeps her going: “doing the things that no one else is willing to do.” She describes the children who run up to her at the IDP camps, and how happy they are to see her. “I could stay at home in Kenya, have a nice house and be able to see my family,” says Marylyne. “But what would happen to this child? Who is going to take care of her, make her see that she can still have a life, can still dream? That she matters?”
The life she has chosen is full of heart-wrenching, unanswerable questions. But one thing Marylyne knows for sure: the people she reaches through her work with International Medical Corps would not survive if we weren’t there. So she does everything she can to keep her inner light shining bright, determined not to leave those who need her out in the dark.
Since 2010, the militant group Boko Haram has been waging violent attacks on civilians across Nigeria, creating a deteriorating security situation with increasing numbers of victims, destroying social and economic infrastructure, and disrupting education services. As a result, almost 2 million people are internally displaced and nearly 5 million people are facing severe food insecurity. International Medical Corps, which has worked in Nigeria since 2013, currently has teams in Kano and Borno states, delivering programs in nutrition, water and sanitation, gender-based violence prevention and response, and food security.