Changing Perceptions and Growing Gardens

Educating mothers about appropriate food is preventing malnutrition among children

Dominic Wol, Latifa Dusuman, Joseph Duduka and Lisa Lynn Hill
women sitting on a large plastic mat
24 August 2020

“In my community, a woman is required to stay for a day or two without eating anything nutritious after birth; later, she will be provided with starchy foods and salt. This is a local method for stimulating milk production.” Akech Bol Akuien has believed this for most of her life but she now knows that it is completely wrong, thanks to Mother Support Group sessions. Starving mothers after birth has been adversely affecting the lives of mothers and their newborns for generations. Strong cultural beliefs and practices in the Bahr el-Ghazal region and more specifically Gogrial East, are a major hinderance to growing healthy babies with the recommended age appropriate diet.  

However, valuable lessons and improved methods for moms can be found at their doorstep. Akech, a mother of an 18-month-old baby boy, attends Mother Support Group sessions at Angernger nutrition centre.  Discussions and learnings are facilitated with UNICEF supplied booklets, also known as counselling cards, with simple pictorial messages that are easily understood by illiterate people.

Two women are talking on a mat
Akech Bol Akuien (to the right) is talking to one of the other mothers in the group.

Akech proudly narrated that, “When I delivered my sixth baby, my husband ordered that I eat chicken soup, meat, and other nutritious foods available during my post-delivery period. No husband in my community has supported this act before.” Akech shares the valuable childcare information she learns from her support group with her husband as soon as she sees him. This has led him to appreciate and share the issues of childcare; like, making sure that mom gets a full, heathy diet during pregnancy and after delivery.

Helping communities eliminate ill-advised protocols from the past and replace it with current knowledge about eating nutritious foods after birth has become a mission for Akech. She said, “We [mothers] all require nutritious foods at all times during pregnancy and while lactating.” This helps mommy’s body prepare for early initiation of breastmilk, within the first hour of birth. Breast milk provides all the nutrients, vitamins and minerals that an infant needs to grow for the first six months.  

But where can this nutritious food come from? Let’s ask Akech.

women working in a garden
Akech Bol Akuien (in the back) is tending to her garden and gets help from one of the other women.

She walks over to a lush vegetable patch and explains, “I have acquired skills and knowledge from this participatory group for moms, and now am able to share the knowledge with my fellow women in the community. Initially, I only knew how to grow sorghum and maize.” In the Mother Support Group, she also learned about “kitchen gardening.”

Akech has her own kitchen garden where she tends to a variety of vegetables. She believes she can help other moms produce their own vegetables as well. She hopes to have an impact on more men, too. She pointed out that, “In this community everything is decided by men, it is therefore important to get men on board as well.” Nothing could be better than men and women working together, growing all this nutritious food, to help growing babies. 

UNICEF works in partnership with World Vision International in Gogrial East County, and across South Sudan, in provision of community-based management for acute malnutrition and emergency maternal, infant and young child nutrition (MIYCN). The overall goal is to ensure mothers and their children have a healthy diet so they not only survive but develop and thrive. In this approach, Mother Support Groups are formed for moms to discuss and learn from one another about the issues of maternal, infant and young child nutrition and gardening, supported with vetted information from UNICEF.

UNICEF's nutrition prgrammes are generously supported by ECHO/EU and USAID