When drought hits rural Malawi and the corn runs out, mothers often face difficult decisions, like which meal to shave from the three they usually serve.
Breakfast? It would be hard to send the children off to school without a meal. Lunch? Ten hours between meals is a very long stretch. Dinner? Who can sleep with a rumbling stomach?
As a volunteer health promoter for Wellness and Agriculture for Life Advancement, or WALA, Fatima Mkwate is committed to helping mothers avoid answering these questions by giving them tools to outsmart hunger.
The courtyard of Fatima's home in Mpindo Village is a revolving door. Neighbors walk in and out all day. Children play on bamboo mats while Fatima pounds groundnuts or pumpkin leaves with a large mortar and pestle. Chickens cluck in the distance as Memory, Fatima's oldest daughter, lights a fire in the kitchen under the stove that will warm their cooking pot. Their home is a test kitchen for new ways of preparing food, and their tidy courtyard—with a hand-washing station and spotless pit latrine—is a model of healthy living for the community.
Although it's still months before her family's stockpile of corn runs out, Fatima is already calculating ways to stretch their daily meals. Careful menu planning will be essential if she and her husband, who works as a hired driver, are to feed their six children on her husband's modest wages.
On days when there's no sugar, Fatima's family eats boiled cassava instead of their favorite sweetened cassava porridge. Rather than eating nsima, a traditional Malawian corn dumpling, at every meal, Fatima will substitute some of the other porridge recipes she learned through the Catholic Relief Services-led WALA program, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The recipes rely on local ingredients easily found in Fatima's village: pumpkin leaves, groundnuts, yellow sweet potatoes, bananas, vegetables and eggs.
Fatima and the women in her village were raised to ignore local vegetables, even though the plants often grew wild around their homes and farms. They favored the more labor- and cost-intensive corn, a staple in the Malawian diet.
"With these new porridge recipes we don't need corn," says Fatima. "If we have cassava or sweet potato, we still have food. These new recipes have taught me to analyze the amount of maize flour I'm using for nsima. I now realize that I don't need to prepare it twice a day; I can substitute porridge for one meal and save my flour just for the evenings."
Although the ingredients are simple, they've cooked up dramatic results. In addition to saving on maize flour, the nutrition-packed recipes have helped young children gain weight. Although it's been barely a month since Fatima and the women in her village were introduced to the new recipes, they've already seen their children's weight increase. Fatima's 3-year-old daughter, Zione, gained more than 2 pounds in 12 days. Other women in the group have seen similar results.
Drought and Nutrition
After ladling out porridge to each of her children, and rounding out the meal with a banana, Fatima quickly bathes her two youngest children and gets ready to make her rounds. She grabs a flip chart and wraps a WALA-provided lime-green chitenge (a traditional Malawian wrap skirt) around her waist. A drawing of a baby surrounded by locally available essential foods is at the center of the skirt. Fatima will use it as a visual reminder to encourage her group of 12 moms to provide their children with a balanced diet.
Today, her first stop is at her friend Enless' house. Fatima and Enless sit beneath a line of drying clothes. Enless' infant son burrows his face into her chest to avoid the gaze of strangers, while the women carefully examine the flip chart. They are deep in conversation as they discuss the porridge recipes and the expected results of the corn harvest.
The drought is on everyone's mind, as are the porridge recipes and the subsequent weight gain of the village children. Although it's only been a month since they've begun adding ingredients to their porridge, Enless' older daughter, Gift, 3, has gained 3 pounds during the 12-day trial period. They can easily see their children's cheeks rounding and their distended bellies transforming into those of well-fed children.
"Hollis and Zione [Fatima's younger daughters] have the benefit that I have more knowledge than I did with their older siblings," says Fatima. "When I look at the two and compare them with others at the same age, I clearly see that these two last-born weigh a lot more than my firstborn."
Best Ways of Learning
After swapping success stories, Enless and Fatima discuss the roles of nutrition, hand-washing and proper hygiene in keeping their children healthy. It's up to Fatima to check that each of the women she monitors has set up a hand-washing station and dug a pit latrine. The illustrations in her flip chart have humorous reminders on the do's and don'ts of healthy living.
"This is one of the best ways of learning," says Enless, of Fatima's visits. "We didn't know the connection between sanitation and using the bathroom. We used to wash wherever we found water, even in a cooking pot. But now we know the link to illness, and that is why we built our hand-washing system."
The women chat for a few more minutes before wrapping up. They'll meet again throughout the week during their daily trek to fetch water. It's a time when women share stories, swap recipes and exchange ideas about ways to increase their children's weight gain.
Glimmer of Hope
On her way home, Fatima stops by her family's pumpkin patch. Burrs embed themselves into her chitenge as she shuffles through a thicket of thigh-high pumpkin leaves. The field of purple flowers envelops her as she bends over to sever a handful of nutritious leaves from their stems.
There is no need to purchase seeds for the plants the program has taught Fatima to use in her recipes. Pumpkin, moringa, cassava and amaranthus plants often grow wild or have seeds that are easy to save from year to year. Unlike corn, these plants require no chemical pesticides and very little water, making them much more resistant to prolonged droughts.
Although she knows this will be a hard year for her family, she now has hope. Fatima and her husband will try to stretch his wages by swapping out nsima for porridge using the pumpkin and groundnuts that managed to grow when the rains started after the corn harvest. And they'll purchase the much-less-costly sweet potato.
This year, the question that mothers of Mpindo Village will ask themselves won't be which meal to skip, but which porridge recipe will make their meager harvest of corn last longer.
Sara A. Fajardo is CRS' regional information officer for East Africa and southern Africa. She is based in Nairobi, Kenya.