Caring for a community’s children
With support from the Government of Ireland, UNICEF is working the Government to address malnutrition in Sierra Leone.
Masiaka, SIERRA LEONE - Twenty-eight-year-old M’balu Turay is, by any measure, a very busy woman. In addition to being a farmer, a wife, and a mother of four children, M’balu also serves two extremely important roles in her community, the 750-person town of Masiaka, located in Sierra Leone’s Kambia District.
Firstly, M’balu acts as a Community Health Worker (CHW) as part of the Government of Sierra Leone’s community health programme, volunteering to help monitor and ensure the health and wellbeing of her fellow community members. And secondly, she also serves as a ‘Lead Mother’ for her local Mothers’ Support Group, or MSG – an organization she has now been involved with for more than 10 years.
“Mothers’ Support Groups work hard to help support their community,” M’balu explains, referring to the ever-growing network of community-based groups located around the country. Established with support from various non-governmental organizations, there are now more than 14,000 MSGs nationwide – with 1,244 operating in Kambia District alone.
“When we started our group,” she says, “our first activity was agricultural, to grow a vegetable garden to help feed our own children. But since then we have expanded. We introduced a Village Savings and Loan box, where each member regularly contributes a small amount – and we use that money to give loans, to earn interest for the group so that we can help solve personal problems that come up. For example, when I was in labour and my husband was away, the group members used part of the money to hire a motorbike to take me to the health facility.”
It was four years after initially forming their group, M’balu says, that her MSG received their first training on child care, provided by UNICEF – training that has recently been expanded upon, with UNICEF working alongside the Ministry of Health and Sanitation, with support from Irish Aid, to provide new refresher workshops and coordination meetings for MSGs and CHWs in Kambia District. It is through these trainings that M’balu and her colleagues have continued to learn about topics such as the importance of personal hygiene, exclusive breastfeeding for children under six months, and proper nutrition for babies and children under five (as well as for pregnant mothers). In a country where 12% of children under five are considered underweight, and 26% are stunted in their growth, such information can help care givers to make important decisions and take actions to help protect their children against malnutrition.
Through these trainings, M’balu was also equipped, she says proudly, with the skills necessary to share her knowledge with other women in her community – a task she takes very seriously.
“I feel so proud that I have the knowledge in these books. Now I am even helping to mentor other women in our Support Group so that they can become like me.”
“For me, I never had formal education,” she explains. “I was given to child marriage when I was just 10 years old. It was only through my women’s group opportunities that I was able to learn so much. And now I can use my handbook to teach other people in my community,” she adds, pulling out a set of counselling cards filled with colourful diagrams – perfect for explaining health-related concepts to audiences, regardless of their language or reading ability.
“I feel so proud that I have the knowledge in these books,” she says, “and now I am even helping to mentor other women in our Support Group so that they can become like me. Since I now have the knowledge in both Community Health Work and MSG activities, it is the women I mentor who help me to carry out all the MSG activities. That way, I can concentrate on the more technical CHW tasks, and we can work together as a team to ensure the health of our community.”
One of the main tasks M’balu and her mentees undertake, she explains, is to identify and counsel new and expecting mothers – sharing with them information about hygiene, exclusive breastfeeding, and proper nutrition for every stage of child development. A big part of which, she says, is teaching women how to prepare nutritious meals for their families.
“Whenever our group helps to educate new mothers,” M’balu explains, “we always show them the types of local food that grow here, that is healthy, and we ask them not to sell all of this food, but to make sure they keep some to cook for their children, and for their baby after it reaches six months of age.”
“There is so much good food growing in our community,” M’balu says, pointing out the plants surrounding her own home – including beans, pumpkin, bananas, eggplant, and more. “It is our job to show women how to grow and prepare them, instead of buying expensive formula that is not as healthy.”
Ever since M’balu and her fellow Mothers’ Support Group members began educating women in their community about the importance of infant and child nutrition, M’balu says she can’t remember there being a single case of severe acute malnutrition. “We don’t have malnourishment cases in our community now,” she says, “because we follow the mothers from pregnancy until the children are five years.”
“Between us – the Community Health Worker and the MSG women – we make sure the children of our community are being cared for.”
 Statistics Sierra Leone. 2018. Sierra Leone Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey 2017, Survey Findings Report. Freetown, Sierra Leone: Statistics Sierra Leone.