Pilirani Kachimanga, 39, grew up hearing that eggs are hazardous for pregnant women and lactating mothers.
During her first pregnancy 15 years ago, elderly women warned that she would give birth to a crybaby “as hairless as an egg” if she broke the taboo.
“The thought of having a weepy bald-headed baby was terrifying, but I continued to eat eggs for my health and the unborn child,” she narrates. “Strangely, nothing peculiar happened. Instead, I looked healthier than my friends who believed the myths. My baby was born with greater weight.”
The fear of the unknown left many pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers and children malnourished in Traditional Authority (T/A) Mpunga, Chiradzulu, recalls Kachimanga.
Equally harmful was overreliance on nsima and porridge from maize flour, which contains scanty nutrients required for children’s growth.
“The elders said a baby cannot live on breast milk alone though babies spoon-fed porridge had ballooned bellies, slow growth and low weight,” Kachimanga explains.
She exclusively breastfed her three children for six months against the odds.
“From 15-year-old Femia to seven-month-old Trinity, none of my three children suffered malnutrition,” Kachimanga brags.
Ever-smiling Trinity, born on November 27 2022, personifies the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding. On May 27 2023, she introduced in her baby’s diet light complementary feeding, mostly porridge comprising a mix of ingredients from six food groups. They include groundnut flour, eggs, vegetable soup, pawpaw juice and other foodstuffs.
“For six months, I kept hands off extra meals because breast milk contains all the necessary nutrients for a baby and her digestive system wasn’t well-developed to break hard food,” Kachimanga explains.
She learned to prepare the soft meal with a bit of everything from communal cooking demonstrations convened by nutrition promoters to popularise diversified diets and different ways to prepare nutritious meals from locally available foodstuffs.
“Apart from the enriched porridge my daughter takes four times a day, I also learned how to prepare porridge from pumpkins and juice from pawpaws and sweet potato leaves,” Kachimanga states.
The cooking lessons and door-to-door visits by the community-based volunteers have helped shatter myths and misconceptions fuelling malnutrition. During the sessions, promoters tell participants to eat more than just nsima.
“They show us many nutritious local foods that we can eat for our benefit and different ways of preparing them,” Kachimanga explains.
She belongs to Mwaiwathu Care Group in Lipalamu area. The group of 360, led by nutrition promoter Elias Maluwa, comprises 36 clusters of 10 households each.
The volunteers work with village heads to promote recommended nutrition practices, sanitation and hygiene under Afikepo Project, funded by the European Union in partnership with Unicef, so that children can live healthy lives and reach their full potential.
“We don’t want any child to suffer from malnutrition and its debilitating effects, so we work closely with village heads to confront the myths and misconceptions,” Elias states.
Healthy children at play delight the volunteer who believes a healthy start in life boosts their growth, learning and productivity.
“We are creating a community free from malnutrition,” he explains. “Malawi needs healthy people to develop…When children are happy and free from preventable conditions, we are all happy,” he explains.
The group also help combat sanitation-diseases that fuel malnutrition in children.
“Before Cyclone Freddy struck in March this year, 177 households had latrines. However, 82 were destroyed by the torrents that poured for four days nonstop,” says Elias.
Maxwell Matumbo, one of the 20 health surveillance assistants at Thumbwe Health Centre. He says the community-based promoters, cluster leaders and village heads are the healthcare system’s ears and eyes in areas where they live.
None of the 11 pregnant women and 22 under-five children in his zone was diagnosed with malnutrition in May.
“The future looks bright if we continue working together to have healthy children born of healthy mothers and protect every child from malnutrition,” he explains. “As community health workers, we are too few to get to every household, but these people quickly alert us when they detect suspected malnourished children, sanitation gaps and myths.”
From January to last month, only two children from Lipalamu received ready-to-use therapeutic food, a peanut butter-like paste used to treat severe malnutrition without complications.
“Until 2019, we used to find eight malnourished children a month,” says the community health worker.
He thanks Afikepo for empowering community-based agents to confront malnutrition and myths in their midst.
“Now children are healthy and growing well, thereby spending more time in school, learning to become productive citizens, not bedridden with preventable disease or wasting time and money on hospital trips.”