CHRONIC malnourishment leading to stunted human growth, including a smaller brain, is the biggest crisis facing Mozambique.
The director of the World Food Programme (WFP) in the poor southern African country is at the helm of urgent aid work to alleviate the diet problem.
Lola Castro said that the first 1,000 days of a human existence, including development in the womb and the first 23 months after birth, was the key time to ensure adequate nourishment and normal growth.
The larger of the two brain images on this page is that of a properly nourished child, while the smaller brain is that of a severely malnourished child.
Ms Castro, who originally comes from Spain, was speaking to the News Letter from her headquarters in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, after the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Concern Worldwide took us on a tour of the isolated Zambezia province, in the middle of the long country.
Around 45 per cent of children in the province are chronically malnourished.
Lack of food diversity, vitamins, proteins, good water or micro nutrients, leads to very short adults and children. The child becomes weak and cannot recover after 1,000 days.
“That is the emergency of Mozambique if you like,” she said.
So what can be done about this problem that blights the lives of millions of children in Mozambique and other parts of Africa?
There is, says Ms Castro, no single solution. She cites multiple factors:
l Good education, including discouraging early pregnancies
l Monitoring pregnancies, ensuring vitamins and iron for the mother
l Make sure exclusive breast feeding
l Good water and sanitation
l Varied diets, including fish, vegetable and animal proteins, not just staples such as rice and cassava.
The WFP provide specific food nutritions, and foods for pregnant mothers. The point about breastfeeding is one Ms Castro emphasises. “That is very important,” she says.
Intervening during the 1,000 days is key but WFP is also working alongside organisations such as Concern to tackle underlying issues.
“The main problem is that small farmers cultivate very small plots with one or two crops,” explains Ms Castro. “There is a basic diet in the northern areas such as the areas you have visited. Two or three products the whole year — maize, cassava, rice.”
They are trying to improve resistance to natural shocks such as flood, drought and cyclones. It is, says Ms Castro, the third country most affected by natural disasters globally.
“Last year there were four consecutive cyclones. If a poor household’s field is flooded, they are in serious trouble.”
The WFP are also supporting dykes and better irrigation and agriculture.
The country has huge potential, says Ms Castro, and can not only feed itself, but be a net exporter: “Last year we bought 90 per cent of our food in the country.”
But there is a big rice and wheat deficit.
Mozambique is fourth from bottom of the Human Development Index (HDI), the global measure of life expectancy, literacy, education, standards of living, and quality of life, especially child welfare. In other words, it is a deeply impoverished nation.
This is principally due to the natural disasters, and 30 years of war (from the early 1960s to the early 1990s — first a war of independence, then a civil war). Many areas are covered by landmines.
“NGOs are crucial, especially agencies like Concern Worldwide who have worked long in the affected areas. They are well known by the government.”
Ms Castro, 48, grew up in the Canary Islands, and studied in Madrid before working overseas with the Spanish foreign office and the UN. Friendly and multi lingual (she is conversing in excellent English but her first language is Spanish and in Mozambique she has to speak Portuguese, the language of the country’s former colonial masters), Ms Castro does not sermonise as she cites the immense challenges in Mozambique.
She has seen much suffering over the decades, having worked in countries including Guatemala, Cameroon, Nigeria, Malawi and Georgia during its war with Russia. She was in Rwanda after the genocide in the mid 1990s.
While working in 1998 in a part of Sudan that now falls within the new country South Sudan, Ms Castro saw people starving in a famine that killed up to 250,000 people.
“Seeing people dying literally in front of you is not very nice, especially if you work for the WFP,” she recalls.