Aminata Sam Saga is one of the nurses working on the nutrition programme of the Belgian Red Cross and Burkinabé Red Cross Society in Sebba, Yagha province, in Burkina Faso. She has been working for the project since 2010. Aminata is 34, has a five-year-old son and is expecting a baby. In Burkina, she is considered an "old" mother, as usually girls get married after the reach 12 and then go on to have at least 4 or 5 children.
The Sebba nutrition project covers 23 villages and employs three nurses as well as community educators. As we were visiting the project, activities were happening in the remote village of Diogora. On that day, activities consisted of promotional sessions on the importance of breastfeeding, good nutrition practices, as well as a mass screening for global acute malnutrition. Moderate cases are treated directly at the village level, while severe cases of malnutrition are referred to the nearest health centre. Other activities the project undertakes include hygiene promotion, demonstrations of food preparation and a follow-up of the moderate acutely malnourished children, to name just a few.
Aminata tells me that it takes a lot of information and communication to overcome some of the taboos in the region ."For me, one of the main causes of malnutrition in children is the abrupt end to breast feeding. When I started working for the programme, I realised women were not breastfeeding long enough because they became pregnant again. It is part of the beliefs that breastfeeding while pregnant will kill the baby which is in your belly." Of course, this is not the only cause of malnutrition. Aminata also believes that diarrhoea, measles and malaria are contributing factors, as is the death of the delivering mothers - all putting the babies at high risk of malnutrition.
An essential part of the education programme is to promote birth spacing. "Taboos are not easy to overcome, hence we had to find a way to keep the mothers breastfeeding," Aminata said. Over the years, she has seen that birth spacing was adopted by more and more women, and that better hygiene practices were also helping in reducing malnutrition rates.
But this year, malnutrition in the region has increased by about a third due to poor harvests which have lead to a serious food crisis. Mothers of the malnourished children are wondering how they will get through the lean season. Blanket feedings are organised to partly address the issue. But more needs to be done.
Programmes to support livelihoods of the affected population, giving them revenue to improve their daily food-intake, need to be implemented urgently to avoid the need for emergency nutrition programmes over the next years as well.
On this specific day, while doing the screening, a sand storm blew up, followed by heavy rains. Mothers with their children left the screening site in a rush, looking for shelter in the village. The screening team had no other option than to jump in their car. While this nutrition session in Diogora ended far too early this day, the team would return the next day to carry on with their activities.