Overcoming malnutrition

Meliana Hoar and her son Zulito at their local education session, or "Pos Gizi", as part of Oxfam's nutrition programme in East Timor. Photo: John Sones/OxfamAUS.

Six years after bloodshed and violence swept through East Timor following the vote
for independence, the people are facing a new crisis - malnutrition. Oxfam Australia’s Maureen Bathgate travelled to East Timor to find out how Oxfam is helping families survive.

Both Zulito and his brother Tarziso, who live in the village of Kader Ombucal in Cova Lima, East Timor, are malnourished. They are among thousands of children in East Timor who are not getting enough to eat. A recent assessment found 58 per cent of children under five in the Cova Lima district are underweight.

The hungry season
During the hungry season from November to March, when household stocks of maize and rice have run out, as much as 90 per cent of the population is left without enough food.

To respond to the food shortage, Oxfam has initiated nutrition and agriculture projects in communities across Cova Lima. These projects help people grow and cook nutritious foods, process fresh foods so they last for longer periods, and improve yields of maize and rice.

"Our programme aims to educate parents about giving their children more staple foods, more nutritious foods, using foods that are in season, showing them ways of processing the food to make it last longer," explains Edi Setyo, our local Nutrition Programme Coordinator.

A new approach we are using in East Timor is called "The Hearth" - a twelve week nutrition programme. Malnourished children, their parents and community educators come together to practice new cooking, feeding, hygiene and caring behaviours. These sessions, locally known as a "Pos Gizi", involve weighing the children, health and hygiene activities, playing, cooking nutritious foods and feeding.

The parents are then encouraged to continue what they have learned at home. Community educators visit the parents to see whether the new practices are being incorporated into the families' daily lives.

Oxfam currently supports 58 Pos Gizis across Cova Lima, working closely with the Cova Lima District Health Services, which conducts regular home visits and supplies Vitamin A and de-worming tablets to help boost the children's immunity to disease.

At least they are getting lunch today
In each village there are often children who are healthy as a result of their parents using good nutrition practices - practices that are then promoted within the community. This gives families with malnourished children a stronger sense of ownership in making their child healthy, as these methods are not seen as 'outside' interventions.

For the Pos Gizi, each mother brings 100 grams of rice or maize per child and vegetables from their garden, or some water or firewood. If the child cannot eat all the food at the Pos Gizi, it is taken home. A typical meal consists of boiled rice mixed with eggs, garlic, fish, white spinach and oil, followed by a delicious ripe banana, a fruit which is plentiful in these parts. These meals are very rich in the essential proteins, fats and other vitamins and minerals that the children are lacking.

"Families here would not normally give bananas to their children to eat. They aren't really seen as food for the children. Instead, they sell them," Edi says. "By giving them bananas we are promoting the idea that there are foods readily available that they can use."

Zulito and Tarziso tuck eagerly into their big bowls of rice. At least they are getting lunch today. Usually they eat only breakfast and dinner and even then it might be just some boiled rice or a cake-like food made from cassava flour.

Their mother, Meliana, says the programme has made a big difference to her family: "I am learning very many new things - like cooking healthier food for my children, washing their hands, cutting their nails and how to care for my children so they don't get sick," she says.

"It is good because we are also able to use the things we learn here at home with our families in our daily lives."

The good news is that Zulito and Tarziso are gaining weight and their health is improving.

Source: Oxfam Australia