By Suzanne Beukes
Sometimes, a nut changes everything. In Nigeria, it might even make a difference between life and death. Though it seems a little nutty to say it that way. But in a country of more than 11 million children younger than 5 years who are stunted – a condition that puts a child’s survival at risk but also diminishes their physical and intellectual growth and development – what is nuts is how so many parents are unaware that so many of the foods at their fingertips could change the world for their children.
“There are locally available foods that are adequate for their children but they won’t use them,” explains Catherin Anger, a Benue state government nutrition officer managing nutrition interventions for 4.2 million people. They sell those foods, she says, and stick to their traditional diets of yam and maize.
For their babies, she says mothers want to make their porridge like breastmilk, “smooth and thin”. They make it too watery and don’t understand the importance of adding other foods. “The next moment, you see the baby is malnourished,” says Anger.
Helen Terwase and her husband are small-scale farmers growing ground nuts along with a few other crops not far from the two rooms they rent in a settlement area on the outskirts of Gre West, in Benue State. She admits it never occurred to her to cook with the ground nuts for her family. The twins she gave birth to seven months ago already show visible small for their age.
Monotonous diets and lack of education
The problem of malnutrition starts with a mother’s diet when pregnant, but according to Stanley XX, UNICEF Chief of Nutrition in Nigeria, it takes off in children when solid foods are introduced, at age 6–24 months. “They may get porridge for breakfast, porridge for lunch and porridge for dinner, which doesn’t supply them with the minerals and vitamins they need for optimum growth,” he says.
Anger attributes much of the country’s malnutrition problem to lack of education. “Often there is a lot of ignorance on good nutrition, especially as many of the mothers don’t have a lot of education,” she says. Though breastfeeding, Terwase has only eaten a few boiled yams, hours earlier. Her three other young children try to distract the constantly crying twins while Terwase makes their evening porridge.
A woman’s slighter status in the household factors into the problem also, as do taboos linked to superstitions. Eggs and meat, for instance, are prized foods and typically reserved for the “man of the house”. Says Anger, some people believe that “if you give them to children, they will then like the taste and they will become a thief. Because once they taste how good it is, they will steal them.”
Although breastfeeding is promoted in hospitals and clinics, only 15 per cent of Nigerian mothers exclusively breastfeed their infants, often introducing water, tea and other liquids in the first six months. Many mothers need to be convinced that breastmilk alone has all the vital nutrients needed to prevent diarrhoea and pneumonia, says Anger.
Mothers’ support groups
To overcome the ignorance and myths, the Nigerian government, with UNICEF and other partner assistance, is building up a network of community counsellors who have moved health education out of the overwhelmed health centres and into homes and villages to reverse the problem of stunting, particularly in rural areas where three out of ten children are underweight.
In Gue Went, one of those counsellors, Helen Tyokaw, stands under a large leafy tree before a table filled with food representing the seven food groups and yet what is locally available. She is surrounded by 30 young mothers. With the help of a local government nutrition officer, she explains the importance of each food group for children. A cooking demonstration follows, this one a simple display of making porridge with soya beans and ground nuts, both common to the area.
Helen Terwase, one of those mothers, admits surprise. Despite the few years now of cooking for her five children, she didn’t realize that using the food she already grows could make a difference in her children’s lives without changing her household budget. “I’ve benefitted from what we have learnt today at the support group especially in the area of complementary food – the pap that was mixed with everything,” she says.
In each community, the counsellors set up a support group to counsel mothers through each child’s first 1,000 days – from pregnancy until their second birthday – and to help them understand good nutrition. In addition to the group discussions, the counsellors visit each young mother at home to reinforce the messages and navigate the individual household dynamics that may make it difficult for the women to practise what they learn.
UNICEF is working to expand the community mothers’ groups across the country.