When Mary Chilenga’s two-year-old daughter persistently fell sick and took so long to recover, she consulted a doctor who shocked her with his diagnosis.
Her family of six is one of the most successful in Kasungu North in terms of farming.
“That is why when the doctor said my daughter was suffering from malnutrition, I could not believe it. Food is always there in abundance in my house,” Chilenga, 36, says while shaking her head.
She insists it is not easy for her to accept that the condition could ever strike a child in a home that has all manner of food at its disposal.
Chilenga has on several occasions heard about the lasting effects of malnutrition, which the World Health Organisation singles out as the most dangerous threat to global public health.
“I always imagined it is a condition for children in poor households, not one which grows food crops and rears livestock all year round,” she says.
The farmer, who spends several hours in crop fields every day, admits the finer details of the doctor’s diagnosis made some sense.
She rarely breastfed her daughter and did not care about the food she gave her as long as it was enough.
“My only worry was when she could eat enough food. Otherwise, that the quality matters too didn’t seem to matter to me,” Chilenga says.
The child apparently frequently lost appetite, spent time sleeping and was feeling cold most of the time.
Chilenga says she is lucky that her daughter is “back to normal” because she now pays a lot of attention to her nutritional needs and is fighting to repair the damage.
“I realised that food might be there in abundance but still without the qualities necessary for nourishing the body. Now, I have to ensure all my children get all the six food groups,” she explains.
Situations like these are compelling organisations to push for more resources for nutrition interventions.
Manager responsible for nutrition projects under Save the Children, Jacqueline Chalemera, says while Malawi is making progress in addressing nutrition challenges, the battle remains huge.
The child-centred organisation is implementing a nutrition advocacy component in the Afikepo (let children develop to their full potential) Programme financed by the European Union.
According to Chalemera, some districts that are performing poorly in terms of nutrition are those which generally produce adequate food.
“Sometimes caregivers lack knowledge of the right food to give to children. So, enough food does not necessarily mean good nutrition,” she says.
In its advocacy work, Save the Children is engaging duty-bearers at national, local and community levels to ensure they effectively deal with nutrition challenges besetting the nation.
“At national level, policymakers should devise strategies for the improvement of nutrition. They should also provide enough resources for nutrition interventions.
“At local level, we are engaging council directors so that they understand that nutrition is equally important and should not have resources budgeted for its interventions redirected to other sectors. This is a big problem,” Chalemera says.
During a recent engagement with M’mbelwa District Council, Chalemera implored officials at the council officials to sustain the nutrition interventions even after the project duration expires.
She has sent the message to nine other districts across the country where the project is being implemented, warning that the progress that has been made so far would be meaningless if councils faltered along the way and let households slide back to their old ways of feeding.
On his part, Joseph Gausi, Campaign and Advocacy Manager at Civil Society Organisations Nutrition Alliance, which is an implementing partner in the project, says the government has the responsibility of creating a favourable environment in which good nutrition can thrive.
“Malnourished children cannot be productive even when they grow up. They cannot reach their full potential. That is why we are looking at nutrition as a human rights issue.
“The State should put in place measures to ensure people feed themselves in dignity. Sometimes, farmers produce enough food but vendors exploit them by buying it at very low prices. The State has the obligation of protecting these farmers,” Gausi says.
As some households’ farming land diminishes both in size and quality of soils, he believes modern agriculture practices would ensure optimal production.
“It is a matter of putting in place good policies and strategies that ensure households have food; not only enough food, but also food of good quality,” Gausi says.
He hopes the Food and Nutrition Bill, which reportedly already got Cabinet’s nod, will be tabled in Parliament and passed.