A clean home is a healthy home

Improving nutrition outcomes through sanitation and hygiene practices

By Sellina Kainja
Afikepo beneficiaries in Kasungu district
UNICEF Malawi/2020/Sellina Kainja
02 December 2020

Jessie Phiri’s house is perched on the side of a hill in Simalambo Village in T/A Wimbe, Kasungu. The 23-year-old mother of one warmly greets her visitors at the door, but instead of shaking hands and ushering them inside, she produces a bar of a soap and leads them to a bucket of water so that they can wash their hands.

Frequent handwashing with soap and water has become the new normal in her household, Jessie explains, and is becoming increasingly common in her neighbours’ homes too. She explains why she insists that her entire household wash their hands and keeps her home and its surroundings squeaky clean: “As you might be aware, that there is an outbreak of coronavirus. It’s important to keep our homes clean and regularly wash our hands with soap in order to stop the spread of the disease,” she says.

Frequent handwashing has also helped to reduce the risk of diseases such as diarrhoea, which in turn can cause malnutrition, as Jessie learned when she became involved in an innovative five-year programme funded by the European Union and implemented by UNICEF and the Food and Agriculture Organization. Afikepo, which means ‘let them [the children] develop to their full potential’, aims to improve nutrition among women of child-bearing age, adolescent girls and young children by providing information on the role of good hygiene practices in preventing malnutrition, as well as encouraging a more diversified diet.

The programme has made an enormous difference to Jessie’s family. She describes how, instead of working, she used to spend long hours nursing family members who were suffering from diarrhoea and other water-borne diseases.

“Afikepo taught us the need to wash our hands regularly to keep germs from spreading. Following good hygiene practices has helped my household. I now wash my hands as soon as I wake up, before preparing meals and feeding the baby, after visiting the toilet and after changing the baby’s nappies. Even our visitors now understand why we ask them to wash their hands. Unlike in the past, when we fell sick often because of unhygienic practices, we now have time to spend on activities that benefit our households. I now have more time to spend on farming instead of worrying about a sick child or other family member,” she says.

She also understands the importance of clean water for good health. “Before we store water for drinking, we boil it and sieve it using a clean cloth. Then we let it cool before putting in a clean bucket. This has helped us to prevent water-borne diseases,” she says.

Thanks to Afikepo, Jessie also has a clean pit-latrine, bathroom and a rubbish pit, helping to keep her home clean and disease-free.

Fanny (L) washing her hands. Good hygiene is one of the interventions encouraged by Afikepo
UNICEF Malawi/2020/Sellina Kainja
Fanny (L) washing her hands. Good hygiene is one of the interventions encouraged by Afikepo

As part of Afikepo, care groups have been set up in targeted communities to provide information on the importance of good nutrition and hygiene and to support mothers, young children and adolescent girls. Thirty-year-old Fanny Luka from Chilibuno Village, T/A Mphonde in Nkhotakota District, is a mother of four children and a member of Kamphalala care group.

“Before joining the group I hardly knew anything about hygiene and sanitation. Now that I have more information, I’m able to follow good hygiene practices. Since joining the group and learning about hygiene and sanitation, I have seen changes in the overall health of my family. We no longer fall sick as frequently as we did in the past,” she says.

Like Jessie, Fanny also makes sure she has a bucket of water and a bar of soap ready for visitors when they arrive, as well as a mpondagear (the Chichewa term for a handwashing station) for use after visiting the toilet.

“When you constantly have to nurse sick children because of poor hygiene, you have no time to invest in yourself and your household,” she says. “I’m grateful for this programme because I now have more time to spend on my farm and on other things that bring in an income for the family.”

And thanks to an efficient stove that uses less firewood and produces less smoke, Fanny’s kitchen is much easier to keep clean, freeing up more time. To further improve her surroundings, Fanny has now planted flowers all around the house.

Since contaminated water can contribute to illness and malnutrition, the care group advises Fanny and her neighbours to keep their local borehole clean. It also encourages members to grow nutritious vegetables to improve the diet of the whole family and as a result, Fanny’s backyard garden is brimming with a variety of vegetables, sugar cane, cassava and maize.

Through Afikepo, Fanny, Jessie and thousands of others have found that a clean home is a healthy home, and that even simple measures such as regular handwashing with soap can safeguard their families from illness and malnutrition.