Dispatches from Africa: A Notebook, a Long Walk, and Nutrition for All
Kennedy Mbereko carries a notebook in his back pocket. Ask him about it, and he will show you the pages where he records all of the visits he makes to households with undernourished children. There are comments on the children's condition, notations about latrines and hand washing facilities, a record of which families have received training on healthy diets, and a list of the other 11 people (two men and nine women) who serve as the Care Group for this village of Jombo in southern Malawi. These teams are at the very center of the global effort to "scale up nutrition" for women and children around the world.
For six days, our group of U.S. church leaders has been exploring efforts to improve maternal and child nutrition in Zambia and Malawi. Our goal is to understand how U.S. foreign assistance enables countries to improve the nutrition of their citizens, especially women and young children. Our exploration has been framed by the 1000 Days movement, which focuses attention on the nutritional needs of children from conception through age 2.
Our meetings with officials and visits to programs have reminded me of peeling back the layers of an onion. We started on the outside, first learning the terminology of undernutrition, such as "stunting" and "wasting," and looking at government strategies and USAID programs. We then dug a little deeper, meeting with NGOs and church agencies that plan and implement programs. Along the way, we went deeper still, visiting a Zambian hospital ward for severely malnourished children and witnessing the fragile little bodies that define "wasting" in a way that the statistics cannot capture. We have been highly impressed with the knowledge and commitment of people at all levels -- of USAID staff, government officials, medical personnel and NGO staff.
But it wasn't until yesterday that we reached the innermost layer of this complex issue of nutrition. Standing in a remote village talking with Kennedy, I was once again reminded that 90 percent of the effort to overcome debilitating hunger and poverty comes from poor and hungry people themselves. Global campaigns are important; foreign assistance is vital; strong agencies and good planning are essential, but it is the thousands of people like him, armed with notebooks, simple educational materials, and a knowledge of ways to improve nutrition using a community's own resources that make up the heart and soul of this effort.
I was surprised that our presenter was a man. We tend to think of nutrition as a women's issue, and most of the Care Group members are women. But Catholic Relief Services, in designing the Wellness and Agriculture for Life Advancement (WALA) project, made a decision to engage men at the village level. It is important that men understand both the need and the solutions, they reasoned, so that other men will not relegate nutrition to a women's concern and will be more willing to participate in solutions at the household and community level. Judging from the obvious buy-in from this village's male leader, it seems to be working.
Study Kennedy's face and you discover a slight tinge of pride. He understands the importance of the role that has been entrusted to him. He knows that what he is doing will make a real difference in the lives of the scores of children who cluster around us, posing for our cameras. And while the overall situation for this village looks bleak, as another "hunger season" approaches, it is impossible not to share a little of his hope -- and just a tiny bit of his pride. The notebook he carries, the training material he uses, the skills that he has learned are all made possible by USAID funding of this Catholic Relief Services administered project. Although far from the center of this battle, as Christian advocates for a strong U.S. government commitment to maternal and child nutrition, we are standing with Kennedy and thousands of women and men like him.
Gary Cook is interim vice president of policy and program at Bread for the World.
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