By Abdulkarim Ssengendo
As part of its annual series, Ugandans Making a Difference, New Vision will, until October 3, publish articles on individuals and organisations that have dedicated their efforts to fighting malnutrition in the country. The articles will highlight the causes, discuss solutions and recognise the efforts of those working to avert the problem that affects up to 54% of children under the age of 18 years in Uganda
In 2004, when Molly Namara, a resident of Mbarara town, gave birth to a baby with a part of its spinal cord exposed, she did not think the baby would survive.
Medical doctors called the condition spina bifida and explained it was a birth defect, partly caused by a deficiency of folic acid in the mother’s diet during pregnancy.
It was during her frequent visits to Organised Useful Rehabilitation Services (OURS), an organisation that supports people with disabilities, to seek care for her child that Namara met Ambrose Ganshanga.
Ganshanga encouraged her to join a group of 16 women, all mothers of children with disabilities, to share ideas and get psychological support. Namara has since risen to become the chairperson of the group that has 427 registered members, all parents of children with disabilities.
It is through this group that Ganshanga teaches parents the causes of various disabilities and how to prevent them, with special emphasis on children’s nutrition.
Today, Namara wears a smile as she talks about what she, and her colleagues, has learnt from Ganshanga.
“There are many things I used to take for granted. For example, I never thought of utilising the small space in my backyard to grow vegetables, which are essential on the family menu,” she confesses. Even the foods I was spending a lot of money on were probably not as beneficial to my family, simply because I did not know how to prepare them to retain the nutrients. Ganshanga has taught us all this; we find the information useful, and the foods readily available and affordable.”
They were also taught the quantities needed by people of various ages and different health conditions. They also learn how to prepare food for children who are picky.
With these lessons, Namara says, her child is no longer sickly and the other members of her family are able to produce and eat nutritious foods.
“We are also able to produce enough food and even have excess for sale, giving us additional income for children’s school fees and medical expenses,” Namara says.
Hadijja Nagaba, another mother in Isingiro district, gave birth to a baby with spina bifida. She took the child to OURS in Mbarara and Cure Hospital in Mbale for surgeries.
The child underwent major surgeries, but remained weak. The mother too was weak as she was not feeding well because she used to spend all her money on medical bills.
Her other children were malnourished, especially the sick one.
Ganshanga visited her home in 2011 and taught her how to feed her children. Nagaba says her children’s condition has since improved.
“I was invited to a parents’ group where we are taught how to feed our children and how to ensure proper nutrition for our families. Since then, my child feeds herself and is growing steadily. The other family members too are happy because food is always available, yet we used to ignore local foods in favour of expensive ones, which we could not afford,” Nagaba says.
“We appreciate Ganshanga’s work. He sacrifices his time to reach out to the families of the most neglected children ( especially children with disabilities). I do not know how life would be if he did not offer this service,” says Lydia Tukamushaba, also a mother of a child with a disability.
Tukamushaba says since they joined the group five years ago, none of them has given birth to a child with a defect, which she attributes to the information they are getting from their nutrition classes.
Tukamushaba has also applied the information by growing different kinds of foods, which has helped improve her family’s health.
Ganshanga started the campaign in 2008 after realising that many parents were giving birth to children with disabilities in the western region. Out of ignorance, many such parents ran to unskilled traditional healers, who charged them exorbitantly without solving their problems, instead of seeking expert medical help.
Ganshanga adds that undernourished mothers who have folic acid deficiency have high chances of giving birth to children with spina bifida, yet this defect could be averted by taking plenty of green leafy vegetables like dodo (amaranth), nakati and fruits like avocado, which are readily available in many rural areas of the country.
With Ganshanga’s training sessions, many parents in western Uganda have learnt the importance of nutrition in tackling some of the problems they have grappled with for long.
Ganshanga has formed many sub-groups in different districts, especially those in the greater Ankole region.
He organises trainings in people’s homes, checks on the progress of those he trained and supervises each parent to ensure what he teaches is implemented.
He works with OURS, Ruharo, the Mbarara-based centre that rehabilitates children with disabilities in south-western Uganda.
Ganshanga trains parents’ groups the about the good sources and importance of food nutrients.
He says by the time he started in 2008, neurological defects in the area were rampant and he realised there was need for an intervention at the grassroots.
“I invested in this area to reduce the prevalence of disabilities resulting from malnutrition. Without proper nutrition, we shall continue having a high number of undernourished mothers and children born with defects,” he explains.
Ganshanga says all mothers need training on nutrition because an undernourished mother cannot feed a child properly, cannot produce enough breast milk for the baby and cannot prepare the right foods for her family, resulting in a viscous cycle of malnutrition.
He warned that children born with big heads, who get malnourished before five years, develop mental retardation.
Statistics on malnutrition
Statistics from the Uganda National Household Survey 2009/10, show that stunted children have a higher grade repetition rate of 12.2%, compared to their non-stunted counterparts at 9.1%. Stunted children are also likely to drop out of school. One out of every three young children in Uganda are too short for their age, according to the 2011 Uganda Demographic and Health Survey (UDHS); and the incidence of poor nutritional status is highest in the relatively better off sub region of south-western Uganda, of which Mbarara is part.
About 250,000 children under the age of five suffer severe acute malnutrition and, while the country loses 360 children in this age bracket daily, nutrition interventions could save at least 120 lives daily. The country also loses 13 mothers daily due to pregnancy-related causes and half of these are related to nutrition problems. Overall, the annual cost associated with child under-nutrition is estimated at sh1.8 trillion, which is equal to 5.6% of the gross domestic product
Do you know any individual or organisation focusing efforts on improving nutrition in communities? Write to the Features Editor, P.O. Box 9815, Kampala or e-mail email@example.com giving name, telephone contact of nominee and reasons for nomination. Type food, the nominee’s name and SMS to 8338