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Around a quarter of the population of Liberia does not have adequate access to healthcare and health facilities are limited in the nutrition services they can provide. Childcare and feeding practices need to be improved to protect children against sickness and malnutrition. But thanks to the art of song, a certain part of Liberia is seeing great improvements.
The crowd inside the small tin-roof community hall in Wrobone village break into a smile at Korpo Jallah’s instructions. They know what is coming next.
She begins to clap her hands, moving gently from side to side. They all rise to their feet and lift their voices:
Healthy baby, shiny baby, clever baby.
Everyone joins in - pregnant mums, grandmothers, husbands, the village chief, teenagers, grandads, nursing mums, boys and girls - there are few exceptions.
The song that Korpo has taught this Mothers’ Group and which they have repeated many times before - is about breastmilk and the importance of breastfeeding. It is an effective learning tool and a light-hearted way to drive home a serious message.
42-year-old Korpo Jallah has a decade of healthcare experience behind her. A nurse by profession, her role now as a field assistant with Concern is to train - not just mums or prospective mums, but whole communities - on how best to bring up healthy children.
“I love this job,” says Korpo, who has two grown up daughters of her own and cares for her sister’s four children.
It’s a wish come true for me. I love to visit communities to tell them what I know. I’m passionate about it. I enjoy working with women because they are often marginalised. But we show them who they really are and encourage them to become significant in their community.
Today is the last of four Extension Nutrition Action (ENA) learning sessions organised by Concern, and to which mums, dads and their families have been invited. It is part of a five-year programme offering nutrition support to more than 52,000 people in 160 communities in Rivercess county and neighbouring Grand Bassa.
I meet mothers who are struggling to care for their children. A while back, we discovered a child who was severely malnourished. Concern was able to intervene. The child is improving
Once a week, Korpo and her Concern colleague Ousmah visit Wrobone village. They are trained to spot the early signs of childhood malnutrition and treat malaria, diarrohea and pneumonia. Serious cases are referred to Gblorseo health facility, three kilometres away.
The couple give lessons on prenatal maternal health, exclusive breastfeeding, supplementary feeding and hygiene in the home. They organise cookery demonstrations on how to prepare nutritious meals and diversify diets with vegetables and locally available fruit, like papaya, banana and pineapple. They also attempt to address ingrained gender inequalities.
The impact is clear to see. Many families have built latrines and have set up hand-washing points. They now grow their own vegetables – white aubergines, tomatoes and sweet potatoes - in small, prolific vegetable gardens. Concern has also helped install a water pump to provide safe drinking water, cutting the risk of disease – an underlying cause of malnutrition. Women are accessing a local savings and loans scheme, to give them some protection in emergencies and an incentive to kick start a livelihood.
At the end of the Mothers’ Group session, 46-year-old Mary Wrobone is invited to demonstrate how to cook a meal for a sick or malnourished child between six and eight months old. While a friend helps to light a fire, Mary adds sesame paste, powdered okra, dried fish, mashed banana, spices, oil and salt to a pot of porridge oats and water. She cooks it over the heat for a few minutes and then lets it cool.
The demonstration over, one of the mums volunteers her healthy child to taste what has been prepared. Without hesitation, six-month-old Jeffrey cleans the spoon. He has a big appetite and enjoys mouthful after mouthful. It brings a smile to everyone’s face.
We are making progress. After some advice and encouragement, mums are beginning to pick up what we have shown them. Their behaviour is changing.