Integrated Regional Information Networks | December 14, 2009
When it comes to mealtime almost anywhere in Liberia, food for children is almost always the same. Rice mixed with sauce, and a little bit of vegetables. That’s exactly how Goramah Bangah used to feed her children. She didn’t realize that this regimen can lead to malnutrition. With the help of other mothers, Ms. Bangah learned the value of offering her children different types of food. Now her table looks different. And her children are healthier.
Ms. Bangah said she never used to know about cabbage or carrot greens. Now that she knows they are nutritious, her whole family eats them. Ms. Bangah didn’t know she could feed her two-year-old chicken and eggs. But now she does.
Tradition dictates how children are fed in Liberia. Fruit and vegetables are not highly valued. Chicken and fish are only eaten by adults. There is a myth that if children eat eggs, they will turn into robbers.
But not all mothers follow these traditions. Two years ago, an NGO called Catholic Relief Services came to work in the Nimba, Lofa, and Bong counties. One out of three children in these counties is malnourished. Catholic Relief Services looked for the families whose children were well nourished. In these families, they found women who break tradition and feed different foods to their children. These women were identified as “lead mothers.”
Daniel Dharmaraj is a nutrition and health advisor with Catholic Relief Services. He explains that lead mothers do not come from wealthier families. They have the same low income levels to cope with. The difference, Mr. Dharmaraj says, is that they are willing to experiment with food. For example, many lead mothers harvest wild yams from the forest. They also break custom by feeding chicken, eggs, and fish to children.
These lead mothers were encouraged to share their practices within their community. Ms. Bangah is one of the women who learned from the lead mothers. For her, feeding her children meat was only the beginning.
Ms. Bangah has added more vegetables to her small garden. She grows aubergine (sometimes called bitter ball), carrots, cabbage, okra, hot peppers, and cassava. The vegetables provide nutrition for her family. They are also a source of income, as extras are sold in the market.
The result of the lead mother program, also known as the positive deviance approach, has been dramatic. In targeted villages, malnutrition rates in children under five have dropped – from 30 per cent to 12 per cent. Better access to health care has also contributed to the improvement.