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Simple Porridge Transforms Lives in Ethiopia

Ganet Gelgehu stirs a pot of corn-soy porridge to serve her twin sons, Israel, right, and Joseph, background, in their Ethiopian home.

Ganet Gelgehu stirs a pot of corn-soy porridge for her twin sons, Israel, right, and Joseph, background, in their Ethiopian home. Photo by Sara A. Fajardo/CRS

by Sara A. Fajardo

Ganet Gelgehu takes a handful of dried corncobs and places them on her raised stovetop. She strikes a match and lights the dried husks, which instantly ignite. Quickly, Ganet places a metal cooking pot, blackened from use, on the open flames. She uses a chipped white coffee cup to add 3 cups of water and a cup of yellow powdery corn-soy blend, called CSB. Joseph, one of her twin boys, stirs in bed as the room fills with the aroma of the bubbling porridge. His brother, Israel, sits next to his mother and peers into the pot, eagerly anticipating his first bite of breakfast. Israel won't have to wait long. It only takes 5 minutes for Ganet to prepare their meal.

The boys, the youngest of Ganet's five children, have been transformed in recent months. Thanks to the porridge thickening in the pot, their once listless behavior has been replaced by troublemaking and the trademark inquisitiveness of 2-year-olds. Scrounging enough food in the Ethiopian village of Gubeta Arjo to feed five boys is a full-time job. Ganet struggled to find enough to satisfy them. Whenever they asked for food, Ganet would have to strap both boys to her back and go in search of something to feed them. The twins were thin, tired and weak. Joseph was so weak he would frequently fall. When Ganet took them in for a routine health screening, the health worker diagnosed Joseph with malnutrition and prescribed corn-soy porridge twice a day.

The food is provided by Catholic Relief Services and our partner, the Ethiopian Catholic Church-Social and Development Coordinating Office of Meki-Wonji Branch, with generous funding from the American people through the U.S. Agency for International Development's Food for Peace program.

Moral Support for Mothers

Joseph and Isaac sit side-by-side on a white woven plastic food sack, struggling to balance their large bowls of porridge on their outstretched legs. Their tiny fingers wrap around spoons twice the size of their hands as they scoop the warm breakfast into their mouths.

Although they are enjoying the porridge now, the twins cried when Ganet first introduced it. The porridge differs vastly in taste and texture from the food the children are accustomed to. Also, individual bowls, like the boys have this morning, are a rarity. Meals in Ethiopia are typically a communal affair with families sitting in a circle and eating from the same large dish. Ethiopians commonly tear strips of shared "injera," a bread made from fermented "teff," a local grain, and dip them into spicy sauces. Children will jostle for the last tasty morsel.

To get the boys accustomed to the new flavor, Hinsene Teadale, the local health worker, advised Ganet to hide other foods and serve the twins with their own bowls of porridge. "It took 1 week for the twins to grow used to it," says Ganet. "Now they bring me an empty bowl and ask me to serve them CSB whenever they are hungry."

Hinsene works with mothers like Ganet to teach them about nutrition and preparing healthful meals for the children. With Hinsene's help, Ganet has learned to round out her family's diet. She now prepares snacks of boiled peanuts, provides fruits that she cans, and continues serving them traditional foods along with the porridge. Hinsene has also paired up the mothers receiving the corn-soy powder to support one another and share tips.

The mothers' groups, along with health workers, are absolutely essential in ensuring that women prepare and serve the corn-soy blend correctly. Previously, women were sharing the porridge with all members of their families so a ration that was meant to last a month was depleted in as little as 10 days. Now the women understand that the powder is not food for the entire family, but a prescription for the mothers and children who need it.

Joseph, 2, digs into a bowl of porridge made from a corn-soy blend. Two daily servings of the porridge provide all the calories, vitamins, fats and minerals that a growing body needs.

Joseph, 2, digs into a bowl of porridge made from a corn-soy blend. Two daily servings of the porridge provide all the calories, vitamins, fats and minerals that a growing body needs. Photo by Sara A. Fajardo/CRS

"I think of the CSB as a type of medicine for my twins," says Ganet. "I tell mothers who are reluctant to try CSB that prevention is better than curing a disease. CSB will help children stay healthy."

'I Pray for Them'

Ganet is one of 384 mothers in Gubeta Arjo receiving the corn-soy blend. This supplemental feeding program has a goal of reaching more than 344,000 families across Ethiopia. So far it has helped 272,069. Part of a larger emergency food aid initiative known as the Joint Emergency Operation Program, or JEOP, the feeding program is a safety net to help mothers—expectant, nursing and those with undernourished children under age 5—ensure that their children get the nutrients necessary for healthy development. Recurrent drought has created pockets of chronic food insecurity across East Africa, making it difficult for women to find enough food for their families. The JEOP spares families from having to sell their livestock or deplete their seed reserves, which would spiral families deeper into poverty.

"When I compare my older children at this age with the twins, I see a difference," Ganet says. "They were not this strong. They were not this healthy."

In addition to providing balanced meals, the porridge saves women time and resources. "It doesn't require other expenses like butter, so it saves money," says Ganet. "I used to have to take a lot of time cooking but with the porridge I can cook it quickly, and the twins are off and playing."

Ganet uses that extra time to play with her children. "I teach them with a paper and pencil," she says. "That's how a mother shows her love—by playing with her children and teaching them."

She also shows love in other ways. "Always before I sleep, I place my hand on [my] children's heads and I pray for them," says Ganet. "I pray for them to sleep well. I pray for them to be healthy. And I pray for them to grow up and be good people." With the help of corn-soy porridge, Ganet's prayers are being answered.

Sara A. Fajardo is the CRS regional information officer for East Africa and southern Africa. She and her husband, Ted, and son, Leo, are based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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