Tumizani Malizani’s wide grin says it all—the two-year-old baby playing on her lap is healthy, giving her more time to do household and farm chores.
The mother of seven gives Yusuf and his siblings all six food groups while upholding sanitation and hygiene.
“Yusuf looks much healthier, stronger and more active than his brothers were at his age when I thought giving children biscuits, crisps and other less nutritious food was alright. They were mostly underweight and sickly,” she explains.
Malizani has a vegetable garden and fruit trees in her backyard, where goats, guinea fowls, chickens and pigeons roam. The household boasts a clean kitchen with a fixed dish rack, a pit latrine with a cover and a hand-washing facility.
“Three years ago, it was common to find children bedridden with diseases prevented by good nutrition and sanitation practices. Yusuf’s siblings used to suffer from diarrhoea and weight loss,” she recalls, tending to eggplants and pumpkins in her garden.
The garden, slightly smaller than a boxing ring, personifies her fight against malnutrition as just over a third of Malawian children are stunted.
Malizani’s gets nutrition tips from Magret Butao, a volunteer who frequently visits pregnant and lactating women in July Village, Chikwawa, to promote balanced diets, sanitation and hygiene.
Butao is among 80 care group cluster leaders in T/A Lundu and Kasisi who conduct these door-to-door visits. The volunteers trained by Malawi Red Cross Society with support from Unicef hold communal cooking demonstrations to share tips on how to prepare diversified diets using local foods.
With generous support from the National Committee for Unicef, The Korean National Committee for Unicef, BMZ, KfW, USAid and China Aid, the project is improving the nutritional status of children aged below five, pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers in Malawi.
In Chikwawa, the peer-to-peer volunteers have become foot soldiers safeguarding children from deadly diseases fuelled by poor nutrition and sanitation.
“In this stunting reduction project, the care groups have become reliable change agents who are promoting the desired behavioural and social change to promote resilience in their communities,” says Mavuto Kukhoma, the Red Cross project officer in Chikwawa.
Edward Jailosi, a community health worker at Ndakwera Health Centre in Chikwawa, says people in the target zones now “spend more time working than caring for the sick”.
He explains: “Community health workers in rural areas are few. Through the home visits and follow-ups, the care groups supplement our work by teaching their neighbours how to prevent malnutrition and other conditions that overwhelm our health facilities.
“They also encourage their colleagues to swiftly seek medical help when children are not feeling well, reducing the risk of children dying from treatable conditions.”
Cluster leader Butao, commends Malizani and her neighbours for heeding her advice—and the desired change is visible in healthy children at play.
“In my neighbourhood, Malizani is a shining example of what we want to achieve. Her household has a clean latrine, strong livestock, birds and fruit trees. Her children look healthy and seldom fall sick,” she says. There are eight clusters in group village head Nkhabeka.
The volunteer says she is filled with joy to see happy and healthy children at play.
“Before we started sharing nutrition and sanitation information, malnutrition was rampant and children were missing classes due to preventable illnesses,” she narrates.
In 2020, group village head Nkhabeka and village head July won top prizes in a clean village competition organised by the local Red Cross Society to increase modern sanitation facilities and nutrition practices in Malawi.
During the race, 259 out of 261 households in the flood-prone community had pit latrines complete with covers and hand-washing facilities. This is a rare feat for the village where chronic floods destroy crops, latrines and homes much to the peril of children.
The triumphant two received buckets, picks, shovels, hoes and other tools for communal use during funerals, weddings and other public events.
“Our community leaders’ success is our success because every household contributed to this award-winning story. The main winners are our children, who no longer fall sick regularly due to malnutrition and poor sanitation,” explains Lucy Mwanyenga, nutrition promoter in Nkhabeka.
Due to frequent floods and drought, most families seldom yield enough to take them to the next harvest.
The backyard vegetable gardens that now dot the village are helping children like Yusuf grow healthy despite persistent food insecurity.
And Malizani’s backyard garden is never short of admirers.
“If I am not dealing with customers for my vegetables, it is some passers-by just eager to learn how they can establish their own garden and reap the benefits. I use the harvest to feed my family and sell surplus to buy essential needs for my family,” she explains.
For the family of subsistent farmers, improved nutrition and sanitation saves K3 500s they used to spend on motorcycle trips to Ndakwera Health Centre, 17 kilometres from her home.
“This is a big saving,” she says: “The fare is enough to buy 20kgs of maize, plus pens, notebooks and other learning material for my school-going children.”