I recently spent a week in Africa, my second visit to the continent in 2012. After a quick stop in Cape Town for The Economist’s global meeting on healthcare in Africa I went on to Mozambique to visit Save the Children programs in rural communities in the north of the country.
I came away from this trip with a renewed understanding of the huge difference it makes when a community is really involved with kids’ development. I visited a village outside Nacala where, besides meeting some truly beautiful children, I also got to see how the whole village was building a better future for their children.
The program, funded by USAID and private donors, included several elements. Mothers, trained by Save the Children local staff members who speak the indigenous dialect, were clearly in charge of the health and nutrition element of the program. They were weighing each child on a scale hung from a tree branch. A couple of the kids cried in the little blue sling, but most swung happily as their weight was noted—it was clear that this was something they had done before. The woman in charge—the community leader of the program—counseled each mom about her child’s progress, showing her on a chart where her child was and the line where he or she should be. She advised moms to breastfeed their children exclusively for the first six months and to continue breastfeeding through age two for the best health outcome.
Next, the women showed me how they make a fortified porridge for the kids from corn meal, sugar, salt, and a few secret ingredients. The secret ingredients are actually the key for this dish: they include ground sesame seeds for fat content and the leaves of the moringa tree, a local tree that is very high in vitamins. Using another leaf as a spoon, we all got a taste and I could see why the kids were finishing every bite…tasted a lot like grits to me!
Then, others community members took me through the agricultural part of this program. Through double translation (from the local language to Portuguese to English), we followed along charts that detailed the different crops they grew, plans to increase yields, market values, and expected profits for the upcoming harvest. The community’s ability to sell some of the crop after growing enough for their needs is the difference between children having all the nutrients they need during the “hungry season” and surviving on a diet of staples that does not fully nourish their growing bodies. Without that income, families can’t buy extra protein and fat they need to ensure their children develop. Mozambique still has many malnourished children, and 44% of children under five are stunted, according to UNICEF. But in this community, the children all seemed to be flourishing thanks to the hard work of their parents and the support of the program there.
As the sun started to set, we concluded our visit by sitting in on the village savings group meeting. Community members, with women all in matching green scarfs, went through their accounts and made decisions on which members would be approved to take out loans, who may need help from the emergency fund, and which loans had already been paid back with interest to continue to grow the funds. Save the Children trains community members on how to run these funds and make their own decisions. This group was on their third round of loans to members and had a 95% repayment rate on outstanding loans.
The best moment of this long and busy day came when we were saying goodbye. One of the groups’ members said to me, “We are very grateful for Save the Children’s help in getting this savings group started. But we don’t need you to stay here to do this program anymore. We can do it all ourselves now and your team can go teach another village how to do this.”
This was music to my ears. Truly, the best result of Save the Children’s work is when a community can support the health and development of their children and we are not needed. This vibrant group of people has built a community that invests in the health, wellbeing and future of its children—a model of self-sufficiency that so many communities can emulate.