Nutritious food enables children to grow, learn, play and contribute, while malnutrition and undernutrition rob children of their future and endanger their life and health. Climate-adapted agriculture gives new hope to children like Patience from Uganda.
Text and photo: Alf Berg
Patience (10) is not like other children. Due to a tuberculosis infection and continuous complications she only started school last autumn, three years older than her classmates. For many children the challenges would have been too much. But at the age of merely 10 Patience feels privileged:
“I love going to school.”
“What is it about school that you like so much?”
“Everything. We play and we learn. And I like to sing.”
In first grade in the Bondo area of Uganda, singing is everything. The children sing about math, they sing about language, they sing when the teacher enters, and they sing when the day is over. Every day when Patience returns from school she dances for hours with the other children of the village under the big mango trees.
Liveliness without food?
Akudrabo Geoffrey is a Programme Advisor with Caritas in the area where Patience lives. He is impressed by the children’s energy levels, but at the same time worried about their food supply:
“I don’t understand how they can go on like that in the sun. This is probably the area in the West Nile region where most are affected by stunted growth due to lack of nutritious food. The diet is one-sided and it can be difficult to get enough food.”
Geoffrey has just talked to Patience’s mother Juliet about the children’s diet:
“They eat a lot of starch and not much else. Lots of sweet potatoes, cassava, millet and rice. It mostly contains carbohydrates; not much for a small child to grow.”
Olema Erphas is the general manager of Bondo’s Health Centre. He is worried.
“When drought persists, it’s toughest on the succulent plants such as legumes, herbs and lettuce. People are left with a diet of peanuts and nutritient-poor roots.
“What are the consequences?”
“Lack of vitamins and minerals can lead to deficiency diseases. A balanced diet is essential, especially in relation to child development.”
The Health Centre has good statistics on the consequences of the food shortage.
“From birth we measure the weight, height and muscle quality of the children. We therefore have good statistics for both Bondo, the West Nile Region and all of Uganda. The figures for our area are bad. Only between 20-30 percent of the children have normal growth. The remaining children are shorter than the average for their age. Many children also have permanent cognitive impairment because they were seriously malnourished at a young age, which may cause learning difficulties when starting school. Here we find ‘the invisible hunger disaster’, the hunger that doesn’t get covered by the media. The hunger that is so common in Bondo that people have learned to live with it.”
According to Olema Erphas malnutrition has many causes, including poverty, lack of knowledge about healthy diets and child marriage.
“When children have children it’s obvious that they know very little about nourishments. Moreover, it is difficult for very young mothers to secure a good income.”
Olema thinks it is necessary to think holistically about how to solve the problem. He appreciates that organisations like Caritas both provide vocational training for young women and run information campaigns to prevent early pregnancies.
Climate-adapted agriculture is key
Programme Advisor Geoffrey Akudrabo highlights the impact that the food security programmes have in providing people in the area with sufficient nutritious food. He gives a brief outline of how they work with climate-adapted farming.
Geoffrey explains that the most productive agricultural groups across different villages receive special support from Caritas. They also receive visits from external agricultural experts to maximize productivity, ensuring that each area produces the most of what they are best at.
“The goal is for farmers to trade in vegetables. This increases the food supply and the profit from sale of surplus crops during good seasons. We provide training in vegetable gardening and fish farming, we teach farmers to grow new and nutrient crops but also to reintegrate traditional crops, plants that are already naturally present in the flora,” he explains.
The bright pupil
School is over, Patience sashays out of her classroom. Ten minutes later she is in dance mode. She sings out, throws her upper body in rhythmic movements as she jumps around the sand to the beat. Her mother Juliet is preparing dinner: corn grit, peanut sauce and soup of sesame seeds. And in the long shadows of the neighbouring house two women are washing cucumbers and beans. Traditional food, reintroduced.
Patience grins and eats with both hands. The tuberculosis infection makes it even more important that Patience gets healthy food in the future.
“It’s nice to see that she’s doing well,” says mum Juliet, adding:
“But then I hope that we can also do our part to help her. She needs more dodo leaves, pumpkin leaves, beans and aubergines. If the rain comes and we work hard, I think we’ll make it.”
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