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Essential health care

“I love being a mum” Mothers support each other to keep their children healthy in Turkana, Kenya

NOTHERN KENYA - It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, when mums get together we often share ideas and experiences about our babies and what works best for us. With so many online forums, there are many ways for mums to share whether it is virtually, at the mums and tots group, the school playground or surgery.

I recently met a group of mothers in Turkana, a remote desert area in northwest Kenya, who belong to mothers groups that support one another and learn about the best ways to look after their children in areas of health, particularly nutrition, and hygiene. Turkana is a region where malnutrition rates among children under five are extremely high.

Mentor mothers making a difference

Rebecca Aroto Erupe, 38, is a single mum to five children aged 15 months to eight years old. She is also a group leader at the Lomunyankirionok group. “We meet once a month every Saturday,” she says. The 30-strong group was formed in January last year. As a “mentor mother” Rebecca also spends time with new mums sharing her own experiences and promoting best practices in child care, “We have learned a lot from the IRC trainers about the importance of breast feeding exclusively in the first six months and hygiene and cleanliness,” she says. “As the leader of the group I encourage the other mothers to accept these practices,” she continues.

Rebecca was chosen to become a “mentor mother” because she is well respected in her local community and loves being a mum. “Rebecca has seen how babies are delivered at the hospital, she has attended antenatal clinics and learned about the benefits of breastfeeding, about how to care for infants and young children. Her own children are  healthy,” says Everlyne Owii, IRC’s Nutrition Manager in Lodwar, Turkana. “Rebecca is happy to help other mothers in her community, always ready to share her experience, knowledge and skills on maternal and child care.”

The Turkana people believe that when a woman gives birth she must feed the child goat milk and not wash the child until the umbilical cord dries and falls off. Learning about exclusive breastfeeding has made a huge difference to the community. If a newborn drinks only goat milk and water, they risk severe malnutrition and even death. Mothers were not aware that their milk is all their babies need during their first six months of life.

Children were also getting sick because of lack of clean hygiene practices. For example, mothers would use their hands to clean their babies bottoms after they pooed, thereby passing on germs, infections and tummy bugs. If mothers did breast feed, they did not clean their breasts and therefore would expose the babies to infection. “Breast milk provides all the food and water that your baby needs during the first six months of life,” says Owii. “Only breastfeeding for the first six months protects your baby from many illnesses such as diarrhea and respiratory infections. Mixed feeding can severely damage your baby’s stomach and reduce their immunity,” she says.

The Turkana are traditionally pastoralists which means they move with their cattle to find pasture. However, the people from Rebecca’s village settled a few years ago after their cattle were stolen, “We were pretty well off because of our animals, but when raiders stole them we were forced to settle here. We rely on fruits in the bush and we are getting health care,” she explains.

Bringing essential health care to women and children

Twice a month an IRC medical outreach team visits Rebecca’s village. Nutritionists and health care staff examine the women and children. It is a busy hive of activity, with antenatal examinations, child nutrition assessments, dispensing of medicines and general health consultations. “The mobile dispensary has helped me a lot. My child was malnourished when she was very young, so she was given plumpynut. She has also been immunised. I really thank God for this organisation that has helped me nurture this child,” she says, “The other children did not benefit when they were younger because the programme was not there. But she has been receiving a lot of care,” she continues.

The Mother to Mother groups and nutrition and health programmes are part of an IRC-led consortium of four organisations called ENSURE – Enhancing Nutrition Preparedness, Surveillance and Resilience – funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID). Its aim is to address malnutrition among children under the age of five in Kenya. There are currently 41 mother to mother support groups in the Turkana region. By January 2014 the IRC had immunised and provided healthcare to 6,080 children under five and supported 2,598 women through healthy pregnancies, as well as helping them to learn how best to take care of their newborns.

Being a mum means everything to Rebecca, “I love being a mum. I love my children. I really would like more so that when I’m old at least I know that one of them will care for me in my old age,” she laughs. She also enjoys seeing how mums in the group develop and change their behaviour towards their babies once they have gained important knowledge, “They have learned so much and have changed so much for the better and for their children,” she says.

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