Stories of resilience: Backyard gardens and cooking classes

Monica and her daughter tending their backyard garden
© UNICEF Malawi/2017/Eldson Chagara

by Joseph Scott, UNICEF Malawi

Following a good harvest this year, Malawi’s hunger crisis has eased for the time being. But it’s only a matter of time before the next drought or flood occurs. This series looks at how communities are preparing themselves for the next natural disaster.

It is winter in Phalombe but the weather is oppressively hot in this tiny village called Chakuma. Occasional gusty winds envelopes the village in a cloud of dust sending people and animals alike scurrying for cover. However, the heat does not deter Monica Chikwatu (31) from embarking on her weekly follow up visits to sick children.

Monica is a local health volunteer. Today she is visiting Prisca Matiya who is being treated for malnutrition. She chanced to meet Prisca with her mother at the local water collection point and observed that the girl was too thin for her height. She told her mother Martha, 28, that she would visit them later in the day to do a malnutrition screening.

True to her word, Monica appeared some hours later with her middle upper arm circumference (MUAC) measuring tape, a device used to check whether a child is wasted. She measured the young girl’s arm circumference and confirmed that she needed to be referred to a local health centre for further assessment on malnutrition.

Monica’s keen eye and expertise may have saved the young girl’s life, as Prisca was diagnosed with severe acute malnutrition which can be fatal. However, it’s the respect she commands in the village that makes people listen to her counsel.

Monica at home with her daughter as she prepares for her weekly home visits © UNICEF Malawi/2017/Eldson Chagara

“I did as she advised and I took my daughter straight to the health centre. I am very grateful because if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have known that my child was in danger. My child could have died,” says Martha.

Since the diagnosis, Monica has made a follow up visit every week to check how Prisca is doing. She also checks if her mother is correctly giving her treatment as prescribed by the health staff.

Monica is the link between her community and their local health centre. “I have been a health volunteer for the past ten years,” she says. “I am passionate about my job. I can’t afford to miss my scheduled visits to children who are suffering from diseases such as malnutrition.”

Monica talks to Prisca and her mother during her home visit © UNICEF Malawi/2017/Eldson Chagara

Hunger and malnutrition

Monica was inspired to become a volunteer after her child suffered from malnutrition in 2007 and nearly died. This experience convinced her that she needed to do something to help save lives of children in her community.

“We endured one of the worst droughts in 2007,” says Monica, adding, “The rains disappeared mid-season and all the crops dried. We had no food to feed our children and this led to my second born daughter, Bridget, becoming severely malnourished.”

“Bridget was four years old and she couldn’t cope with eating a meal a day,” says Monica. “She started losing weight. Her health further deteriorated when she developed a fever, which was accompanied by a bout of diarrhea.”

When Monica was at the health centre, she saw ordinary women like herself helping health staff with various duties. She approached one of them who told her that she was a volunteer from the local village who had offered to help in the fight against childhood diseases.

“When I went back to the village, an idea was already planted in my mind,” Monica adds. “I wanted to become a volunteer so that I could help in my community.”

Resilience in the face of drought

For the past few years, Malawi has been hit by natural disasters such as droughts and floods, which exposed the majority of the population to hunger and disease. The 2015/2016 farming season was the worst in a decade. According to figures from the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (MVAC), almost half of the population was in need of food aid because of failed harvest.

However, almost all of the communities affected have no knowledge on how to survive under such circumstances or to prepare themselves better in the event of another disaster. UNICEF with financial support from the Africa Solidarity Trust Fund, is working to build the resilience of communities like Monica’s to cope with droughts and other related shocks.

In Phalombe, UNICEF in collaboration with FAO, implemented a nutrition programme which included back yard gardens, to improve food diversification, and cooking classes, to teach mothers how to cook nutritious meals for their children.

Sangita measuring the middle upper circumference of a child during the hunger crisis last year in Phalombe © UNICEF Malawi/2016/Joseph Scott

“During times of drought, UNICEF works with the Ministry of Health to identify and treat all children affected by malnutrition, and health volunteers are an important part of this,” UNICEF chief of Nutrition Sangita Duggal says. “But this is not enough — we need to ensure that communities adopt farming and feeding practices that give children all the nutrients they need throughout the year. This is the best way to keep children healthy and build families’ resilience to cope with the next crisis.”

Backyard gardens for better nutrition

Monica knew that if her other children were to be healthy, she had to listen to the advice given to her by health workers. She convinced her husband to start a backyard garden, where they plant different types of vegetables. As well as diversifying the family’s food intake, it also meant that when their maize crop was damaged by floods this year, the crops in the backyard garden were not affected.

“I always explain to mothers the importance of backyard gardens. They are an easy way to access different food groups as they don’t require much resources. Vegetables such as spinach and pumpkin leaves are easily found in the village and these can do much to improve the nutrition of not only the children but the whole family,” says Monica.

Monica has been able to help her community members to establish backyard gardens. As a role model, she explains the importance of having different vegetables within the household. “I always try to advise mothers to at least plant some vegetables in their backyard. These are so important especially for mothers who have small children as they can access nutritious food within their home,” she says.

Cooking classes bringing variety to local dishes

In Chakuma village, nearly every household now has a backyard garden. The volunteer structure, also known as care groups, have been working hard to popularize the idea of kitchen gardens as one way of fighting malnutrition. Apart from making sure that every household has a ready supply of vegetables, the care groups also hold cooking classes where they share ideas with community members on food preparation.

Most people in the villages shun local foods. They claim the food doesn’t taste good. But the cooking classes make the recipes exciting to encourage women to use the food they have, to prepare better and nutritious meals. Lexa Phiri is one of the women who has benefitted from the cooking classes. She says the sessions have helped her not only to improve her cooking skills but also to know how to use local foods to make tasty and nutritious dishes.

Some of the recipes on display during a food preparation session in Phalombe © UNICEF Malawi/2017/Eldson Chagara

“I didn’t realise we could cook food like this ourselves — I thought you could only get it in restaurants,” says Lexa adding, “My children are now always looking forward to meal times, which was not happening in the past. It is the same food they didn’t like but now it’s better prepared.”

Looking forward to the future

Monica is upbeat about the future. She says people in her village are now aware of ways to prevent malnutrition and many more have backyard gardens as a way to prevent malnutrition.

“The future is bright,” she says. “We are coming from a challenging past where we had perennial hunger and diseases. I can tell that we have done very well as we no longer have many referrals of malnourished children like in the past.”

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