Since she became a mother, Elina Zalengera, from Mposadala Village in Neno, has nursed three underweight babies at risk of stunting.
The 34-year-old could not afford balanced diets and did not know how to prepare diversified meals from locally available foods.
Most households in the rural setting in Traditional Authority Dambe are hand-to-mouth farmers. They depend on seasonal crops and scarcely yield enough to take them to the next harvest.
“We grow Irish potatoes, maize, sweet potatoes and groundnuts, but our children remain malnourished. After harvesting, most parents sell their harvests forgetting they have children,” says Zalengera.
A community health worker has referred her underweight three-year-old son to Bwalo la Mafuwa, where mothers of emaciated children spend 12 days learning to prepare diversified diets for their children.
Zalengera hopes the meals comprising all six food groups will improve her child’s weight from 11 kilogrammes to normal.
Similarly, Tinyade Zeburoni from the same neighbourhood is happy that the lessons from the mother group will help her 18-month-old baby overcome malnutrition.
She says: “We lacked knowledge on how to prepare meals for our babies, but I am encouraged by testimonies from mothers who are singing a new song after struggling with malnourished children,” she states.
For years, Zeburoni could not adequately take care of her family and crop field because her underweight child was frequently bedridden with illnesses associated with malnutrition.
“Since I have learnt to prepare the meals, my child’s health will be back on track,” she says.
Mothers of children aged below five say Bwalo la Mafuwa nutrition groups have opened their eyes to the benefits of feeding children diversified diets from all six food groups.
“I never knew that my daughter could eat as happily as she does during the Bwalo la Mafuwa sessions. She now looks healthy,” says Joyce Samanyada, from Nseula Village in Neno.
The sessions are part of the nationwide programme to scale up nutrition among pregnant women, children below five and breastfeeding mothers.
The Malawi Red Cross Society (MRCS) is supporting the Scaling up Nutrition (SUN) project in Neno, Chikwawa, Mulanje and Mangochi with funding from Unicef.
It includes various initiatives to sensitise communities to the importance of giving children a diversity of nutritious food in the first 1000 days.
Jamali Kassim, one of the male champions in Malombe Zone in Mangochi, urges men to participate in ensuring every child gets a healthy start in life.
“Men should not only provide for their families but also get involved in ensuring children are healthy,” he says. “During Bwalo la Mafuwa, women share various techniques, including how to approach their partners when they need money for buying some food items.”
Male champions share nutrition tips with fellow men.
According to MRCS head of health Dan Banda, the nutrition project aims to reduce stunting by two percent every year from 2017.
Over a third of Malawian children aged less than five are stunted, according to the Malawi Demographic and Health Survey of 2015.
Low height for age, which signifies severe acute malnutrition, inhibits their physical growth, mental development and learning.
“It will take another survey to assess the impact, but as we know, stunting is now at 36.5 percent nationwide. With the impact seen on the ground, we believe this figure will be reduced,” says Banda.
Bwalo la Mafuwa—named after traditional fireplaces comprising three stones—offers women a safe space to share ideas on how to keep their children free from malnutrition and remain healthy.
“The nutrition sessions are bridging the knowledge gap. Many people are now aware of what to do to safeguard their children from malnutrition. Using locally available foods items, they are making nutritious meals to keep their children healthy,” Banda explains.
He salutes the community-based volunteers for their zeal and commitment to share nutrition messages recommended by SUN project.
“Apart from nutrition talks, they sensitise households to the importance of safe water, sanitation and hygiene practices, which fuel diseases that leave many children malnourished,” says the nutritional health expert.
Civil Society Nutrition Alliance national coordinator Bessie Nova says giving babies access to all the six food groups will accelerate progress to tackle malnutrition.
“As a nation, we also need to ensure that everyone has access to clean and safe water, which remains a challenge in many areas and contributes to malnutrition,” she says.
The nationwide survey conducted in 2015 shows 37 percent of under five children in the country are too short for their age. The figure hovers around 45 percent in both Neno and Mangochi districts, where the Red Cross society is implementing the SUN project.