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At a glance: Nigeria

Counsellors teach mothers the benefits of locally grown foods

July 2013: UNICEF correspondent Suzanne Beukes reports on a programme that encourages mothers to give their babies the best possible start in life.  Watch in RealPlayer


By Shantha Bloemen 

A programme in Nigeria aims to reduce malnutrition by teaching mothers about the benefits of giving children a diverse diet – including the locally grown foods around them.

BENUE STATE, Nigeria, 9 August 2013 – Sometimes, a nut changes everything. In Nigeria, it might even make the difference between life and death. In a country of more than 11 million children under 5 years who are stunted – a condition that diminishes a child’s physical and intellectual development and puts its survival at risk – many parents are unaware that many of the foods at their fingertips can benefit their children.

“There are locally available foods that are adequate for their children, but they won’t use them,” explains Catherin Anger, a Benue state government nutrition officer managing nutrition interventions for 4.2 million people. They sell those foods, she says, and stick to their traditional diets of yam and maize.

Although breastfeeding is promoted in Nigeria, only 13 per cent of children under the age of five months are exclusively breastfed.

Ms. Anger says mothers want to make their porridge like breast milk, “smooth and thin”. They make it too watery and don’t understand the importance of adding other foods to a child’s diet. “The next moment, you see the baby is malnourished,” she says.

Helen Terwase and her husband are small-scale farmers growing ground nuts, along with a few other crops, not far from the two rooms they rent in a village of Benue State. She admits it never occurred to her to cook with the ground nuts for her family. The twins she gave birth to seven months ago already appear small for their age.

Monotonous diets

The problem of malnutrition starts with a mother’s diet when pregnant, but according to UNICEF Nigeria Nutrition Specialist Stanley Chitekwe, it takes off in children when solid foods are introduced, at age 6–24 months. “They may get porridge for breakfast, porridge for lunch and porridge for dinner, which doesn’t supply them with the minerals and vitamins they need for optimum growth,” he says.

Ms. Anger attributes much of the country’s malnutrition problem to lack of education. “Often there is a lot of ignorance on good nutrition, especially as many of the mothers don’t have a lot of education,” she says. Although she is breastfeeding, Terwase has only eaten a few boiled yams, hours earlier. Her three other young children try to distract the crying twins while Terwase makes their evening porridge.

To overcome prevalence of malnutrition in Nigeria, UNICEF works with the government and other partners building a network of community counsellors, who have moved health education out of health centres and into homes.

A woman’s status in the household also factors into the problem, as do taboos and superstitions. Eggs and meat, for instance, are prized foods and typically reserved for the “man of the house”. Ms. Anger says, “Some people believe that if you give them to children, they will then like the taste and they will become a thief. Because once they taste how good it is, they will steal them.”

Although breastfeeding is promoted in hospitals and clinics, less than 15 per cent of Nigerian mothers exclusively breastfeed their infants under 6 months, often introducing water, tea or other liquids. Many mothers need to be convinced that breast milk alone has all the vital nutrients needed to prevent diarrhoea and pneumonia, says Anger.

Mothers’ support groups

The Government of Nigeria, with the assistance of UNICEF and other partners, is building up a network of community counsellors who have moved health education out of the overwhelmed health centres and into homes and villages to reverse the problem of stunting, particularly in rural areas, where nearly half the children are underweight.

One of those counsellors, Helen Tyokaw, stands under a large, leafy tree before a table filled with locally available food. She is surrounded by 30 young mothers. With the help of a local government nutrition officer, she explains the importance of each food group for children. A cooking demonstration follows, this one a simple display of making porridge with soya beans and ground nuts, both common to the area.

Ms. Terwase, one of the mothers, admits she didn’t realize that using the food she already grows could make a difference in her children’s lives. “I’ve benefitted from what we have learnt today at the support group, especially in the area of complementary food – the pap that was mixed with everything,” she says.

In each community, the counsellors set up a support group to advise mothers through each child’s first 1,000 days – from pregnancy until their second birthday – and to help them understand good nutrition. In addition to the group discussions, the counsellors visit each young mother at home to reinforce the messages and work through the individual household dynamics that may make it difficult for the women to practise what they learn.

UNICEF is working to expand the counselling programme across the country.



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