By Blessings Phumisa, UNICEF Malawi
Agness Nyirongo is a 62-year-old grandmother. She shares her two-roomed grass thatched house in Mlongoti village, Rumphi District in northern Malawi with two of her children, nine grandchildren and two great grandchildren. Located just a few kilometres from the main town, Mlongoti is a poor village full of small houses. Just like Agness’ family, most of the families in this village earn a living from subsistence farming.
Every day, Agness’ responsibilities are overstretched. Her tasks were stretched even further three years ago when her 17-year-old daughter gave birth to a baby girl. The new-born was to become Agness’ twenty-fourth grandchild.
The responsibility of taking care of the new baby, Pemphero (meaning prayer), once again fell on Agness. Her 17-year-old daughter left the family home soon after giving birth to look for work away from the village. To juggle the multiple tasks of taking care of her grandchildren and elderly husband and still do her farm work was too much of a strain on Agness.
So, this resulted in baby Pemphero missing vital under-five clinic services including immunization as there was no one to take her there. For Agness, in the face of dwindling food resources in the family home, immunization wasn’t as important as toiling for the family’s next meal.
“I couldn’t take my grandchild to the under-five clinic because I was busy with house chores and farm work,” says Agness.
The family’s neighbor, Modester Gondwe, had been watching from a distance with concern. She turned to the area’s mother group for help. She had heard of a recent UNICEF training area’s mother group. Members of the mother group alongside religious leaders had been trained to support health workers in defaulter tracing for immunization and motivate parents to take their children to outreach clinics for immunization, growth monitoring and screening according to the national vaccine schedule.
“I had noticed that Pemphero wasn’t attending any of the under five outreach clinics despite being the same age with my child. So, I reached out to a member of the mother group, who had earlier visited me, to help this family,” says Modest.
Fresh from the UNICEF funded training that had equipped her with new skills and knowledge to improve coverage of immunization among children in Rumphi, mother group member Eunice Zgambo, immediately visited Agness’ family home. She talked to the family about the benefits of vaccinating children and persuaded them to have their grandchild, Pemphero, taken for vaccination. In fact, Modester the Good Samaritan, volunteered to take Pemphero to the clinic every month.
“By then Pemphero was so underweight and very prone to infectious diseases. She had missed vital immunization for more than a year,” says Eunice (45). Pemphero finally managed to get all vital vaccines and has not missed an under five appointment ever since.
Today, Pemphero is three-years-old and runs around the family home playing with his cousins and children from the neighboring house. It is a sight Eunice couldn’t have imagined when she first saw Pemphero, who was so malnourished and had difficulties breathing.
“It brings me great joy that the training empowered me and gave me confidence to reach out to members of my community on the importance of immunization. The under-five clinic, more especially the immunization and vitamin supplements, has given Pemphero a fresh start,” says Eunice.
Thanks to the training, Eunice has managed to reach out to other parents and guardians of four children who were not taking their children to under five clinics for immunization.
With 133 Health Surveillance Assistants (HSAs) against a population of more than 230,000, Rumphi district has one of the smallest numbers of community health workers.
“Care groups and religious leaders are now playing a critical role in helping HSAs to mobilize communities and households in the face of such overwhelming staff shortage,” says Bright Sibale, coordinator for the Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI) in the Government of Malawi’s Rumphi district health office.
He says mother group members such as Eunice are now occupying a special place of influence in the community in mobilizing communities to access under five clinic services.
Steve Macheso, the UNICEF Immunization Specialist attributes Pemphero’s success story squarely on the support from Finnish Natcom. “I am grateful for the funding support we received to establish and train the mother groups. We will now be able to save many lives of children like Pemphero in Rumphi.”
Over 100 religious leaders and 160 mother group members benefited from the UNICEF training in Rumphi district. They are now able to protect children from common diseases, by encouraging parents to vaccinate their children.