Food for thought in Rwanda

In the past few days, we have visited some child-friendly schools and we saw how the cooperation between the government, the teachers and UNICEF Rwanda is resulting in amazing fruitful changes in the students’ study environment. But it is important not only that children receive an education that is adapted to their full potential and that didactic methods are used that are suitable for the children. To be able to fully realize a child’s potential, nutrition is another key factor.

Together with my other colleagues from the IKEA Netherlands iWitness trip, I have visited a community-based nutrition program in the district of Bugesera, in Eastern Province. UNICEF works together with the district authorities and other partners to help children by:

  • eliminating malnutrition by giving technical assistance for better research and tools for monitoring
  • supporting the scale up of community-based nutrition program activities
  • supporting the provision of home fortification powders that contain all the necessary vitamins and minerals that a child needs in the first 1,000 days of life (these months are the most critical in the child’s life)
  • supporting the expansion of RapidSMS cellphone technology to track the first 1,000 days of the child’s life

It was very impressive to see the nutrition program in action. The parents gather together on the site once a month to take part in several activities. The first important activity is the check-up to see if a child is growing well. To weigh children, they are put in a kind of trouser that is hanging on a scale. The weight is written down on a scale which is either for boys or for girls. According to the weight and age of the child, the health worker checks a chart to see if the weight falls within the green (healthy) zone. If the weight falls within the yellow risk zone, then the parents need to receive counseling. And when the child’s health is so critical and falls within the red zone, the emergency category, the child is immediately taken to a clinic.

It was a relief to see that all the children tested in our presence were falling in the green category. A second test to measure the health of the child was done by checking the circumference of the child’s upper arm. Again they worked with colors to see if the child was healthy.

by K. van der Meer
by K. van der Meer
by Peter Rison
by Peter Rison

To track the first 1,000 days of a child’s life, the results that come from the monitoring instruments are all written down in a book, but what surprised me more was that all the results were also sent by SMS from the community health worker to the government using the RapidSMS technology. What a fantastic and secure way of tracking the health of the children in Rwanda.

Parents are taught by community workers about the different components that make a balanced diet so they can prepare a nutritious meal for their children. Every month the parents bring some food from their own household to the community-based nutrition program in Bugesera, no matter how much and what it is. The parents take part in a cooking demonstration to create awareness about a healthy diet for the children.

Other ingredients for the meal come from the kitchen garden. Parents can also take these fruit and vegetables home. When the meal is ready, it is fed to the children who came to the project with their parents. Every meal that is given to the children should contain a sachet of the ‘home fortification powders’.

by K. van der Meer
by K. van der Meer

It was fantastic to see how all the children were placed on the ground in little groups, so that they were facing other children. This stimulates the children to eat, if they see other children eating. The children seemed to really enjoy the food, and it was spread all over their faces. It was so good to see them eat by themselves with a spoon or with their hands. It showed me that they want to eat without being fed by their parents. For me, that was a sign of their good health.

Photo E. Notten
Photo E. Notten

I was touched by the way the parents were very much involved in the project and how they are seriously committed to fulfilling their role as caregivers. I liked the idea that the parents have their own responsibility in supporting the nutrition program by bringing food. This role can give the parents a feeling of pride that they have an important stake in the well-being of their children. I saw a group of parents who are keen to learn about nutrition.

The projects work because of the influence the parents have on each other and the responsibility they share in making the program a success. And the parents can support each other if they see that another parent is experiencing difficulties, for instance because they lack the means to provide food. This can be addressed by community workers and a solution can be found.

I want to finish with a South African philosophy that is called Ubuntu. A way to describe Ubuntu is “I am because we are”. The parents as individuals are learning how to improve the diversity of a meal. Because they work together with other parents, children are healthier, and the whole community is on their way up.

English
    Eefje Notten