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When healthy foods get spoiled by myths

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CAUTIOUS—Alice has her baby weighed by a community promoter

Malnutrition, especially in under-five children, continues to be a challenge in Malawi; just as is the case in many developing countries.

A 2014 Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS) and the 2015-2016 Malawi Demographic Health Survey findings indicated that malnutrition among under-five children was prevalent in the four districts of Neno, Chikwawa, Mulanje and Mangochi.

In Mulanje, a district that is one of the main tourist attraction areas because of the scenic Mulanje Mountain and a landscape filled with green tea shrubs, is a village called John Zinthuli in Traditional Authority Mabuka’s area.

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Alice Chipangula is a young mother from this village who has a six-month-old baby, Chisomo, who was underweight. This was before she was trained on how to make nutritious meals using readily available resources within her community.

“My child was underweight and was constantly sick with bouts of malaria and pneumonia. I was worried as I didn’t know what was wrong with my child as he did not look healthy,” Chipangula said.

It was only after a visit by a trained village promoter, who pointed out that the child was malnourished and that his life was in danger, that Chipangula made changes towards improving her diet as well as that of the baby.

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“The village promoter measured my child’s weight, height and also used a Muac [Mid-Upper Arm Circumference] tape to measure around his upper arm. This is how she determined that my child was malnourished. I was very worried but I was advised to join a group of women in my village who, at the time, were being trained on how to cook nutritious meals using locally available resources,” she said.

Chipangula further explained that unavailability of food, especially during lean period, has been a major challenge as she struggles to feed herself so that she can produce enough milk to breastfeed her baby as well as cook nutritious porridge since the baby is old enough to receive supplementary food.

She said that since joining the group, she has learnt how to make nutritious flour using soya beans and maize and how to mix porridge with vegetables or small fish that are locally available.

Alice’s story is just one of the many stories that reveals struggles which women, especially those living in rural areas, face in a country where over fifty percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

According to Edith Geoffrey, a Senior Health Surveillance Assistant under Mimosa Health Centre, which caters for a population of 30,368 people in 27 villages, about 30 percent of children accessing various health services at the hospital were malnourished.

“We used to record many cases of severe malnutrition at the health centre but gradually, the figures have been going down. For example, in January this year, we recorded 30 cases of malnourished children, 20 in February, 14 in March and 8 in April,” he said.

She attributed the declining figures to the ‘Scaling Up Nutrition’ project, which is being implemented by Malawi Red Cross Society (MRCS), with funding from Unicef, in the hope of eradicating malnutrition among under five children and expectant women.

She said the initiative has helped to educate and empower communities to eradicate malnutrition.

She said cases of malnutrition among under-fives being recorded at the hospital are now at 8 percent.

Malnutrition is complex and can be caused by several factors, with poverty being the major underlying factor.

However, some cultural beliefs have also fueled levels of malnutrition, especially among expectant women as well as children. Some of these beliefs hinder expectant women from eating nutritious foods such as eggs which are high in proteins, claiming that the baby will be born without hair and with a head shaped like an egg.

This in turn denies the unborn baby the much needed nutrients.

In Bafuta Village in the same district, 60-year-old Steveria Khonzani is one of the people teaching expectant women to eat right as well as feed their children nutritious meals.

“I gave birth to 7 children but I miscarried during my last pregnancy. At that time, as women, we were discouraged from eating certain foods such as eggs, fish and other nutritious foods because there were beliefs that our babies would be born without hair or looking sickly. We believed it at the time and as a result many babies were being born malnourished,” Khonzani lamented.

She now goes around her village, encouraging the women to eat healthy foods and ensure that they are consuming all the six groups of food so that that their babies are born healthy.

Khonzani also promotes good hygiene practices such as washing hands and also encouraging each house to have a pit latrine with a cover to make sure that communities do not lose nutrients through diseases such as diarhoea and cholera.

During lean period, households are encouraged to cultivate backyard gardens with various vegetables while during the rainy season, they are encouraged to eat indigenous vegetables that grow in the fields such as chisoso, mamuna ali gone, bonongwe, denje and many others that are very high in nutrients.

Communities are also encouraged to rear livestock such as chickens and rabbits, as witnessed in Sanzikani Village in Traditional Authority Sungani Nzeru’s area, to supplement their diets with meat and also generate income.

Head of Health programmes at MRCS, Dan Banda, affirmed that through the project, they have empowered communities in the four districts with various interventions aimed at improving nutrition using locally available resources.

Much as Malawi still has a long way to go, this goes to show that if properly empowered, communities can successfully eradicate malnutrition among young children and expectant women.

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