Community volunteers promote better nutrition in Zambia

Through visiting homes, volunteers can identify children at risk of malnutrition

Tiwine Muchipa
A mother in Zambia sits down on the grass with her son in her arms
11 March 2020

Dines Nyamwila’s grandson Bernard was getting weaker.

“Ignorance made me think my grandson was bewitched yet he was slowly getting malnourished each day,” said Dines looking back on their situation just over a year ago.

It was at that point during the 2018 Child Health Week in Zambia that Dines received a knock on the door at her home in the densely populated neighbourhood of George compound on the outskirts of Zambia’s capital city, Lusaka.

Newly trained volunteers from the local health centre were on the look out for cases of malnutrition and using a measuring tape and height board they discovered Bernard, then nearly two years old, was severely malnourished.

‘‘Bernard’s body was extremely swollen and his face could not clearly show,” said Sara Kabula, one of the volunteers that day. “He was immediately referred to George Clinic and put in the outpatient ward.’’

Sara was one of 50 nutrition promotion volunteers from George Health Centre who received training on infant and young child feeding under the Ministry of Health’s Millennium Development Goal initiative (MDGi), supported by the European Union through UNICEF and UNFPA. The 2013-2019 programme was backed by an investment of 49.5 million euros and had a focus on maternal, neonatal and child mortality.

‘‘The community volunteers work hand in hand with the clinic staff and follow up on patients who stop coming for treatment without being discharged at the clinic,” said Lydia Kalasa, a nutritionist and nurse based at the health centre. Since 2017, they have recorded a drop in inpatient cases of malnutrition from 48 per cent to 9 per cent in 2019. And in 2019 they had no cases of children defaulting on their nutritional care.

A child on her mother's lap is tested for malnutrition
A Mid-Upper Arm Circumference (MUAC) tape is used to test for malnutrition in Zambia.

“From the day my grandson was admitted to hospital and started receiving treatment, I decided to be focused on the possibility of him recovering,” said grandmother Dines. “He did not immediately agree to taking the peanut [food] given at the clinic and kept refusing. I kept on pushing him till eventually he grew to like it.”

“We are surely so focused on the negatives and trying to find who to blame for misfortune and miss out all the positives around us,’’ she said. ‘‘There are still people out there who think that as long as a child is fed on mere porridge and milk then all is well, without carefully considering how to use various vegetables and fruits that also need to be a part of the child’s diet.’’

Through cooking demonstrations at the health centre, parents and caregivers can learn about providing good nutrition for their children from readily available foods.

“For me, I started taking nutrition lessons to learn on the best feeding practices. Bernard is my grandson and I love him so much. I have been his care giver from the time he was just a few months old as his mother had to return to school. I took the nutrition lessons seriously, I got out of feeding him the same foods every day,” she said. “One small thing every day; it really helped.”

Bernard is now 3 years old and very healthy, says his beaming grandmother.

A mother and child walk at a health centre in Lusaka
Mother Dines is happy her grandson is now healthy and well nourished.