Somali mothers raise strong and healthy babies against the odds

Sunday, February 17, 2019
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Mother Sokorey with baby Hodhan, age 2, smiles after receiving care at a health clinic supported by Foodgrains Bank member Development and Peace—Caritas Canada in Somalia. (Photo: Will Swanson)

Nutrition programming for mothers helps babies get the best start to life possible

When Dhaqan Ali gave birth in an Ethiopian refugee camp far from her native Somalia, she only hoped for a happy, healthy baby. However, she became concerned about the growth and development of her baby girl, Saynanb, soon after she was born.

“Saynanb never suckled well like my other children. Some days, she doesn’t sleep at all and feeding her has been a nightmare,” says Dhaquan, noting the conditions inside the camp were “difficult” and not an easy place to raise a family.

It was so difficult, she decided to move her young familyback to Somalia to live in Qansahley camp, a camp for people forced from their homes with nowhere else to go.

Out of concern for Saynanb’s health, Dhaqan began to spend what little money she could manage on formula for the baby girl, believing it might help improve her health. Mixed with the poor-quality water available to her though, it soon caused Saynanb to become sick with diarrhea, fever and vomiting. Deeply concerned, Dhaqan took the little girl, then five months, to a health clinic supported by Canadian Foodgrains Bank member Development and Peace through their partner Trocaire.

Saynanb was found to be suffering from severe acute malnutrition—meaning she was critically undernourished and would require urgent treatment to survive. Having access to emergency therapeutic food would mean the difference between life and death for her.

In the Gedo region of Somalia, the Foodgrains Bank, through Development and Peace, is responding to the needs of children like Saynanb who are suffering from malnutrition. The families that love and care for children like Saynab are being supported with education about good nutrition practices, types of food that promote good health, and the importance of breastfeeding for a child’s health.

When Saynanb arrived at the clinic, she weighed less than nine pounds—well below what a five-month old baby should. At the Trocaire clinic, Saynanb was treated for dehydration and respiratory infection and provided with special therapeutic milk. Most importantly though, nurses at the clinic listened to Dhaquan’s concerns about breastfeeding her daughter and provided breastfeeding counselling and advice.

“I am happy to see my child so peaceful and playful,” says Dhaqan. “I have been stressed and at some point I almost gave up, but I decided to try the last chance by coming here [to the clinic]. I am happy I made that decision because I can see the results.”

Health workers attend to mothers and young children at a nutrition clinic supported by Foodgrains Bank member Development and Peace. (Photo: Will Swanson)

The power of ready-to-use therapeutic food

One meal a day. That’s what another mother in Gedo, Barwaqa Mohamed Ahmed, was able to give her children when the rains failed for a second consecutive year. The drought had a harsh effect on Barwaqa’s family and their wider community. They are pastoralists, moving with the seasons and taking their livestock to fresh water and green pasture wherever they can find it.

Barwaqa explains that her family lost their livestock due to the drought. She planted seeds to try and grow some food, but with no rain, her crop wouldn’t grow.

“We have bought food from the shops here on credit, but that has run out and it’s not enough,” she says.

Concerned about the health of her children, Barwaqa brought them to a mobile medical clinic that is part of the same project that helped Dhaqan and Saynanb.

She was provided with a special fortified peanut paste called Plumpy’Nut and a pre-mixed nutritious porridge with corn and soy. The foods have a mix of vitamins, minerals, proteins and other nutrients to help children regain their weight and strength, ensuring they grow properly.

Until the drought conditions improve, Barwaqa will need to rely on the support from the mobile health and nutrition team to ensure the young children stay at a healthy weight. The support for the mothers and children like Barwaqa, Dhaqan and Saynaab is critical, explains Foodgrains Bank executive director Jim Cornelius.

“When children under the age of five go through key developmental stages of learning and growing without proper nutrition, the side effects stay with them their whole lives—if they are able to recover from the malnutrition,” he says. “It’s not just physical growth that’s affected, but even a child’s brain development can be negatively affected.”

He notes that before the project in the Gedo region began, an assessment showed about 20 percent of children were suffering from wasting—or very low weight for height. Another four percent were suffering from severe acute malnutrition, meaning without treatment, their lives were in danger.

Breaking the cycle of malnutrition 

“When I first came here, I had nothing,” says Nasra Mohamed Abdi, a mother who like Dhaqan, had recently returned to Somalia after spending several years at a refugee camp in Ethiopia.

“Our situation was very bad,” she says. “We could barely eat.”

She says when she brought her child for his vaccination, the nurses told her that children who are breastfed are less likely to get sick.

“When I heard this news, it was too good to be true, and I said I would give it a try,” she says.

Nasra stuck to exclusively breastfeeding her baby for the first six months of his life, while continuing to attend nutrition education sessions through the project.

“I’m happy I was educated about breastfeeding my child,” she says. “My neighbours made jokes about me starving my child because I was not giving anything else other than breastmilk, but now my child looks healthier than most of his agemates in the camp who were fed other foods.”

—Amanda Thorsteinsson, Communications Coordinator

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