DR Congo

Nutrition in DRC: How to Make a Difference

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posted on APRIL 9, 2015 by PERRINE PITON

Discover the story of Maman Manga: president of Nkondo (Kisantu) child alimentation support group, she fights every day against malnutrition in her village.

The story of a devoted mother and her battle against malnutrition

Maman Manga was born in 1974, but having so many responsibilities and worries she tends to forget about her own age. Sitting in a plastic chair in her courtyard, under the shadow of a lonely acacia, she is surrounded by three of her children and holds the younger one, Betel, on her lap.

The oldest children are in school. She can’t seem to forget how old her children are though: she knows about all their passions and ambitions. Her first-born wants to study physics. The second is interested in tailoring and dressmaking. The third wants to be a car mechanics and the fourth, a nun.

The two youngest still have to make up their minds – but at four years and five months old they have plenty of time to think about it.

Malnutrition, an understated illness

While nursing her baby, this dedicated mother recalls her first pregnancy, when she was only 17. The baby’s first months were particularly arduous for the young girl as he was frequently sick and cried a lot.

During a visit to her local health centre she finally learnt that her 8 month-old boy was suffering from malnutrition. Like many Congolese mothers she started feeding the baby solid food and especially ‘fufu’ (manioc paste) from the age of three months on.

On this diet he soon developed growth problems. The nurses provided her with help and advice on the topic of child nutrition:

"Exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months, food groups, hygiene… There were a lot of things that I had never heard of”.

Now I keep following these principles and my children are all healthy but I feel concerned because nutrition issues are still very common in other households” says Maman Manga.

Treat severe acute malnutrition as an emergency

In Kisantu’s health zone, UNICEF, with the help of the Japanese government funds, has done a lot since 2012 to improve the medical response to acute malnutrition.

Distribution of Plumpy Nut (Ready-to-Use therapeutic food) cures and treatment of the most severe cases at the paediatric service of the hospital led to a considerable decrease in the mortality rate.

Teaching young parents and pregnant women what is the healthiest diet

But a survey carried out between January and February 2013 showed that the prevalence of chronic malnutrition remained too high, creating a vulnerability to many other illnesses such as malaria, respiratory infections, and dysentery.

Determined to radically change ingrained attitudes UNICEF and their partners, CARITAS and BDOM (Bureau Diocésain des Œuvres Médicales), in collaboration with the local communities, started implementing new awareness-raising projects on nutrition for infants and young children.

Adressing the root causes of chronic malnutrition

The Congolese staple diet is often very monotonous, especially for low-income families that, regrettably, account for most of the population. Even in the more fertile areas, like Kisantu’s, homegrown vegetables are sold on the markets while the peasants survive almost exclusively on manioc.

The younger children suffer from this lack of diversity that directly affects their growth. Popular beliefs often make a bad situation worse. People say:

“Pregnant women must not eat eggs or feed them to their babies for fear of having a bald child”. “Red-coloured food products are also forbidden because they are believed to cause ‘kizanza’ (diaper rash)” explains Mamam Manga.

Exclusive breastfeeding, recommended by the World Health Organisation, is only rarely practised. Maman Manga explains: «because it’s so hot, parents thinks they have to give water to the baby. They also think that new-borns need to eat solid food as soon as three months old to become stronger.»

**Supporting each other in taking on good habits **

In order to counter such dangerous preconceived ideas, Maman Manga and the community relay of her block organise a support group. The group holds weekly public meetings for pregnant women and new mothers – and anybody else who is interested. Within the group women share their experience and help each other at every stage of their child growth: breastfeeding positions, baby food preparation, hand washing…

Discussion group organized every week on the topic of children nutrition

The regulars then report back to the families in their neighbourhood with the best methods. Maman Manga confides: «There is a lot to be done. Mothers are young and unaware, they often have a lot of children. When they have to go work in the fields they leave the baby with an older child who feeds her with tea, coffee and bread. When the group meets we realise that we are all going trough the same hardships”.

“We can talk without shame. We feel stronger and we can go and explain what we have learnt to others who are even poorer and less informed than us. Good advice can really make the difference for the health of your children.”

To find out more about malnutrition in the DRC, listen to our experts:

How to Accelerate Progress Against Child Malnutrition?

Malnutrition, a real obstacle to national development

Also discover our fight against malnutrition through the eyes of a photograph:

Through my lens: the fight against malnutrition