The northern region of Kenya is a drought-stricken land, and access to nutritious, safe and affordable foods is often a major challenge. In the framework of a USAID-funded project to promote Resilience and Economic Growth in Arid Lands, GAIN was called to contribute nutrition expertise to help communities build their capacity and cope with the frequent droughts common in the region.
GAIN worked with the Ministry of Health and local Community Health Volunteers to empower the community groups with the nutrition knowledge they need to diversify the diets of young children and women of childbearing age to increase their consumption of micronutrients rich foods. The nutrition classes covered diet diversity, micronutrient consumption, sanitation practices and other topics focused on increasing the health within the first 1,000 days of life from conception to two years of age, a critical time for growth and development.
Nalois is a mother of three and lives in the small village of Naribi in the Marsabit County in northern Kenya. When Nalois smiles, she looks too youthful to be a mother of three, and too young to be influencing people in her village to improve their diets. Nalois’ community is pastoralist; the men leave home for up to a year at a time to herd the family goats across the barren land in search of greener grass. Pastoralism is especially vulnerable to drought because animals will often die when the rains dry up. When the men herd the goats farther from home, women and children suffer because their source of nutritious foods - such as milk and meat - is too far away.
Many children in Naribi, including Nalois’ two oldest sons, are enrolled in emergency feeding programmes provided by donor organisations to prevent extreme malnutrition. While pregnant with her youngest daughter, Nalois began taking GAIN’s nutrition classes, an opportunity she credits with changing her life completely.
After she was trained, Nalois gained the special role in her village as a Community Health Volunteer, supported by the Ministry of Health. She spends her days passing her knowledge to local community groups.
Gardening might seem a simple solution, but in a land plagued by drought, few had faith that the sandy soil could produce the vegetables and fruits necessary to lessen the regions high levels of malnutrition. The traditional diet does not include any vegetables. This practice is linked to the belief that digging in the soil is an unlucky custom; it is an activity that could bring a curse upon your family. Despite initial resistance, Nalois’ dedication quickly demonstrated the possibilities present in the dusty land.
Nalois influenced her community by creating a vegetable garden near her home that produces enough vegetables to provide her family with necessary micronutrients. The garden is also used to demonstrate to community groups the best way to grow and cook vegetables. Community group trainings teach members, through nutrition classes, how best to plant a garden at home to sustainably diversify the diets of their children and increase their resilience to drought. Today, Nalois’ husband has returned home from the desert where he previously herded goats for much of the year. He now spends each morning tending to the garden, taking the extra produce to market and supporting Nalois in her work.
The support of Nalois’ husband is key, as men are often the most resistant to change. He is now engaged in an activity previously seen as inappropriate for a man and his efforts have a direct impact on the nutrition outcomes of his children.
Nalois’ previous two children had been enrolled in emergency feeding programmes directly after birth. Nalois’ youngest child, a daughter, was born shortly after she began taking nutrition classes with GAIN. Nalois credits the classes with teaching the proper way to breastfeed, clean, feed and care for the baby, lessons that immediately increased the child’s resilience and strength. Owing to her new nutrition knowledge and practice, Nalois’ youngest daughter has never needed supplementary feeding and is as big, strong and smiley as a child of her age should be.
The home-grown vegetables and nutrition knowledge have brought Nalois’ husband home and prevented her daughter suffering the malnutrition that inflicted her sons – greatly increasing the resilience of her family.