Two years ago Jacqueline Uwitonze visited a witchdoctor in search of treatment for her two young children who were abnormally frail.
She thought that the toddlers had been bewitched or poisoned by her enemies.
At two years, the boy used to weigh seven kilogrammes while his one year old sister weighed 5 kilogrammes. They should weigh at least 13 kilogrammes.
Uwitonze had also experienced domestic violence, at times seeking refuge in near bushes with her babies to avoid her abusive husband.
The resident of Rugera Sector in Nyabihu District acknowledged that; “The babies became prime victims of our wrangles.”
Efforts to get a solution for her ailing children, who often missed meals, through sorcery were fruitless.
In 2017 as health workers were carrying out their biweekly routine visits to families with babies Uwitonze is one of the parents that were visited.
“Community health workers visited me and confirmed that my children were struggling with severe malnutrition,” she told The New Times.
After stabling the problem, community health workers transferred the children to Shyira Hospital where they spent three months under intensive care.
When they left hospital, the children were fed on Shisha Kibondo, a cereal nutritious food product used for preparing porridge for children.
The flour is distributed by the Government, for free, to families whose children face malnutrition.
Uwitonze children recovered and they now have normal weight.
“Community health workers advised me to set up a kitchen garden so I could have access to vegetables. I can now provide balanced diet to my children to ensure they don’t suffer from malnutrition again,” she noted.
Nyabihu is one of the country’s top producers of Irish potatoes.
Yet, it’s one of the districts with the highest rates of malnutrition in the country, a phenomenon largely blamed on lack of knowledge on healthy feeding.
The 2015 Demographic Health Survey (DHS) showed that Nyabihu had the highest rate of preventable stunting in children under five years of any district, recording 59 per cent stunting rate, above the national average of 38 per cent.
However, the district vice-mayor for social affairs, Pascal Simpenzwe, said there was a significant reduction of malnutrition thanks to multi- sectorial approaches all aiming at changing the residents’ mindset toward appropriate nutrition.
Home based ECDs
He told The New Times that the district has put much emphasis on home-based Early Childhood Development Centres (ECDs) that operate at every village under the supervision of local leaders.
“We embarked on an intensive sensitisation campaign to change people’s mindsets towards a balanced diet. ECDs are drivers of our success. because we are able to trace children with malnutrition cases and immediately give them free milk and Shisha Kibondo among other forms of support,” noted Simpenzwe
He pointed out that the district has 469 home-based ECDs.
These have helped drive down the stunting rate in the district to 46.2 per cent.
Civil society speaks out
A coalition of civil society organisations under the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) alliance, one of the partners of Nyabihu District in the fight against malnutrition appealed to the district to increase its spending on initiatives aimed at fighting malnutrition.
“Malnutrition is a very worrying issue for our country, that’s why we are appealing to the district and their partners to own this issue by allocating enough funds to deal with it,” said Venuste Muhamyankaka, the Executive Director of SUN Alliance Rwanda.
Rwanda aims to reduce stunted growth among children under 5 years old to 19 per cent by 2024.
SUN alliance says the country will not reach its goal if funding allocated to tackling malnutrition is not increased significantly to speed up the implementation of various measures.
The organisations propose that the Government increases spending on fighting malnutrition from 2.7 per cent to 5 per cent of its national budget.