Malawi’s foot soldiers in the fight against hunger

October 16, 2016
Written by Aoife O'Grady
Photo by Kieran McConville

On this World Food Day, meet two of the thousands of Malawian women leading a quiet fight against hunger.

What does “fighting hunger” look like? A UN plane ejecting food packages to a remote community? An anxious mother hand-feeding food sachets to a malnourished child? Could it also be a group of mothers gathering to discuss issues like family planning and hygiene?

Meet two Malawian women, Ireen and Josephina, leading the quiet fight against hunger by educating themselves and their communities.

Ireen Chinglanda, from Malawi, who teaches other mothers about nutrition to fight hunger

Ireen Chinglanda, from Mchinji, Malawi, is a volunteer health promoter for Concern’s Support Nutrition Improvement Component (SNIC) project. Photo: Aoife O’Grady

In Malawi — where the hunger situation is registered as “serious” by the 2016 Global Hunger Index (GHI) — childhood malnutrition is one of the biggest struggles communities are facing. Only 8% of children under two receive a “minimum acceptable diet” and 40% of under-fives suffer from stunting due to chronic malnutrition (a condition that can leave children permanently physically and mentally underdeveloped). Shockingly, over 6% of children in Malawi will die before reaching their fifth birthday.

Ireen Chinglanda

As a farmer and a mother in the Mchinji district of Malawi, Ireen has long witnessed the impact of malnutrition on her community. Desperate to improve the future of Mchinji’s children, two years ago she became a volunteer health promoter for the Support Nutrition Improvement Component (SNIC) project implemented by Concern. As part of the project, Ireen has trained “lead mothers” in good nutrition and hygiene practices, exclusive breastfeeding, and family planning. These lead mothers then train a “cluster” of other mothers in their respective villages.

In Malawi, many diets are heavily reliant on very few crops — and often just on maize.

Ireen greets us with a warm smile in a field behind a health center in Mkanda’s bustling trading post. The yellowing meadow is quiet today, but once a week it comes alive. It’s here that parents and children gather for malnutrition screening and treatment.

Books used to educate mothers about nurtition via the SNIC project in Malwai

Pamphlets used by SNIC lead mothers to teach other mothers about good nutrition and hygiene practices — such as breastfeeding and family planning. Photo: Aoife O’Grady

In her role as care group promoter with the SNIC project, Ireen is working toward the day when this weekly queue will disappear — a day when malnutrition in Malawi is prevented rather than cured.

Every two weeks, Ireen meets with 36 “lead mothers” in her community and trains them on ways to prevent childhood malnutrition. She covers a surprisingly diverse range of subjects — from hygiene and nutrition to crop diversification and family planning. This curriculum reflects the many interconnected drivers of the problem, and empowers these lead mothers to pass this knowledge onto “clusters” of twelve or so mothers in their village.

Over the past two years, Ireen has seen tangible changes and she’s keen on talking about the difference that the project has made. “I’ve seen a change in how cluster members and the lead mothers practice hygiene and sanitation” she says.

“As mothers we now know how to diversify our diets and include the right mix of foods — and we learned it all through the project.”

Before the program, only a few houses in her village had toilets, leading to health problems and increased malnutrition. Most households have built toilets since learning about their benefits, Ireen says — and they’re using them!

In Malawi, many diets are heavily reliant on very few crops — and often just on maize. This means that young bodies are not receiving the diverse nutrients they need to grow. As a mother of four children aged six to 21 years, Ireen herself has found the SNIC training on the six essential food groups to be critical. “As mothers we now know how to diversify our diets and include the right mix of foods — and we learned it all through the project.”

Josephina Oscar

Josephina, 24, is a mother of two and a “lead mother” from the village of Zizwa in Mchinji. She has also been trained to teach other mothers in her village about the benefits of good nutrition and hygiene practices, exclusive breastfeeding, and family planning through the SNIC project.

We met Josephina in a clearing shaded by a tree, similar to the setting in which she gathers her group of moms every two weeks.

Josephina leads a bi-weekly session for the SNIC project in Malawi

As a lead mother in Concern’s SNIC project, Josephina Oscar (holding her daughter in the right-hand corner) leads a bi-weekly gathering of mothers from Mchinji, Malawi. Photo: Aoife O’Grady

Over a year and a half ago, Josephina was selected by a cluster of moms in her village to be their lead. Quick to smile and affable, while also focused and direct, it’s easy to see why Josephina was chosen. Like Ireen, she’s been guiding her peers in methods for preventing malnutrition through the SNIC project. There are no young mothers in her community who aren’t in the cluster, she tells us proudly. Concern is supporting the training that cascades down from care group promoters like Ireen to lead mothers like Josephina.

Shyleen — Josephina’s youngest child who’s only a few months old — lies snugly strapped to her mother’s back throughout our afternoon together, unperturbed by chanting, dancing and lively discussion. Josephina tells us how the knowledge that she gained from the project influenced her perspective on check-ups during her pregnancy with Shyleen. “I had my first child before I became a lead mother. For that pregnancy, I went for growth monitoring only in my seventh month, but with Shyleen I went much earlier on in the pregnancy because of what I had learned.”

Josephina with her daughter Shyleen in Mchinji, Malawi

At 24 years old, Josephina Oscar (holding her daughter Shyleen) is a a lead mother in the SNIC project for other mothers in her village of Zizwa in Mchinji, Malawi. Photo: Aoife O’Grady

Josephina recalls a mother in her community who tragically died giving birth, and whose newborn went on to become malnourished. Educating women on the importance of healthcare during pregnancy is vital, particularly considering that Malawi still has a high rate of maternal deaths: for every 100,000 births, 510 mothers die.

“We need this support to continue so that the next generation can benefit.”

Our work with Josephina on the SNIC project aims to prevent these kinds of tragedies from occurring, and Josephina has a clear message for those who support Concern to drive projects like SNIC forward: “we need this support to continue so that the next generation can benefit.”

As for Josephina, when we ask if she will continue to play her role in Mchinji’s fight against hunger, there’s no hesitation. “I won’t be quitting any time soon,” she tells us with a smile.

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