Beating malnutrition and running from chameleons in Sierra Leone

When baby Fatima returned to her mother’s village at two months old from Freetown, the capital city “everyone was afraid,” her grandmother Sia Gbandawa told me. Fatima was born in Freetown but sadly her mother died a month after giving birth.

Sent back to her paternal village of Bendu Sandor village in Kono district, about six hours drive away, baby Fatima was met with a negative reaction. Many feared she was turning into a chameleon.

What does malnutrition have to do with chameleons? A nutrition advisor in the village explained to me that there’s an idea held by some that the physical signs of malnutrition – bulging eyes, a certain type of movement and a more pronounced spinal cord or ‘tail’ – leads people to make connections with the chameleon, an animal viewed locally with suspicion for its ‘magical’ ability to change skin colour.

Sierra Leone is a verdant country – the rains are just getting underway, and there’s a strong smell of ripe and rotting mangoes in many villages we visit. But malnutrition is still a common problem: 28.8 percent of children under age five are stunted, 12.9 percent are underweight and 4.7 percent wasted.

A man in a white coat measures the upper arm of a young girl as a woman looks on.
UNICEF JamesA health worker measures the arm of Hawa Kaba, 3, as her mother, Isatu Kaba, looks on.

Grandmother Sia resisted pressure to reject the child: “I said, ‘this is my granddaughter, let me see what I can do.’” Fortunately for her, the village was home to a mothers’ support group – a group of women who come together to help the entire community practice good nutrition, mostly through the promotion of exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months. They also give advice on good infant and child feeding practices, and house-to-house check-ups, screening for malnutrition, and counselling. Fatima’s case was serious and deteriorating, and so the group immediately referred her to the nearest hospital in-patient facility in the main district town, Koidu. After 11 days , Fatima was discharged in much better health.

This trip wasn’t the first time I’ve looked into malnutrition, but it is the first since the birth of my two young children, now 29 months and 10 months old respectively. Parents are suckers for comparing their children’s development to others. In this case, the contrast was sometimes shocking.

The community in Bendu Sandor is heavily involved in artisanal mining for diamonds and chromite, which can leave limited time for growing food. Kono recently made headlines around the world when a local church pastor discovered a 706-carat diamond; a news story that is inspiring others to dream. The countryside shows signs of fresh activity, and digging machinery is frequently seen on the mud tracks between villages.

The mothers’ support group in the community is helping to turn things around, thanks to UNICEF and financing from the Government of Japan. The group members carry out regular house-to-house visits to talk to parents, using a counselling card booklet to help explain good nutrition and hygiene. “We’re motivated women. We’re saving lives,” said chairperson Fanta Simone. “When we started two years ago people weren’t going to the clinic and rates of malnutrition were high. People were giving birth at home.”

The group show me their backyard garden where they grow coco yams, pineapple, okra, maize corn, groundnut, peppers, beans and pumpkin.

Six women, three standing and three bending over, tend the vegetables they are growing.
UNICEF JamesThe mothers’ support group in Bendu Sandor community, Kono district, was set up two years ago to, in part, to help improve the community’s food supply.

Unintentionally following the diamond trail, the next day we’re in the chiefdom, Tankoro, where the mega diamond was discovered. The chief in the village of Woama, Komba S. James, is immediately friendly when he finds out we share the same surname. In fact, it doesn’t take long for him to offer me a house and some land. In the end, I bargain down and get away with accepting a bunch of bananas.

“This mothers’ support group has done a good job,” says Sia James, the chief’s wife, and the group chairperson. “We’re taking responsibility for bringing up our families, growing nutritious food, and placing less of a burden on the men.” As proof of the results, she shows off some the bouncing babies in the village – clearly healthy and well-nourished thanks to exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months. “It’s hard now to find a malnourished child in the community,” says the chief. The mothers’ support group has an added benefit – it helps run a village savings and loans scheme which issues micro loans and turns a small profit which is distributed to members.

Close up of a hand holding seeds
UNICEF JamesUNICEF works with nutrition partner SILPA in Kono district helping families produce their own food.

We saw another such mothers’ support group the following day in the village of Nemesadu. The community still has buildings scarred by the civil war of 1991-2002 which hit this district particularly hard. But those sad times seemed a long way in the past as a procession of mothers danced through the village. As they sang their way to the community hall, the songs encouraging breastfeeding clash with the sound of a DJ hired for the day with his small generator and large PA system. After a demonstration of good nutrition counselling, the high point of the ceremony arrives, and three separate women step forward each brandishing their key to the community savings box. The padlocks are opened, and each member comes to the front to collect the fruits of their saving, and to pose for a handshake and photo. By the early afternoon, the formal bit is over and the hall is full of young and old dancing to local pop music.

Diamonds may be in people’s dreams, but through good nutrition children are getting a better start in life, with lasting results.


John James is a Communications Specialist with UNICEF Sierra Leone

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