As Community Health and Malaria Prevention (CHAMP) Volunteers, we spend a lot of our time working on improving health outcomes of children.
We teach mothers about the importance of exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months. We weigh babies once a month to make sure they are growing at a healthy rate. We stress the importance of vaccines, family planning, and hand washing.
This week, nine Volunteers drove up to Bogou, Savanes*, for a training on how to implement FARN: Foyer d’Apprentissage et Réhabilitation Nutritionnelle (Learning in the Home and Nutritional Rehabilitation). This program has been shown to positively impact the health outcomes of malnourished children.
FARN is a 12-day program where Volunteers and community partners work with 12 mothers and 12 children between 6-24 months old who are determined to be malnourished. Over the 12 days, we teach the mothers recipes for enriched porridge that will provide the child with key nutrients without being unsustainably expensive. The mothers prepare the porridge together, and while they wait for the finished product, we hold a small talk on the issue of the day, such as the importance of a balanced diet or family planning. Two days during the 12-day period, we invite the women’s husbands or partners to the sessions so we can talk about the importance of gender equality.
(Just a quick side note: Peace Corps is a Let Girls Learn country, which means we work on ensuring that all girls have access to quality education. Our work would never have been possible without the efforts of First Lady Michelle Obama. I thought now would be an appropriate time to say: Thank you, Mrs. Obama. You’ve made the entire world a better place for millions of people, especially young girls. We didn’t deserve you.)
The porridge that we teach the women to make is extremely simple. It requires corn flour, bean/soybean flour, CLEAN water, and a little oil and sugar. The women almost always have these ingredients readily available. After the 12-day program, the women will have the skillset to continue to prepare the porridge. During the next training, we invite back one or more of the women who have successfully continued to keep their children well nourished. They become the “maman lumière,” or the enlightened mother. Giving an example of positive deviance like the maman lumière inspires the other mothers and keeps the program sustainable.
These programs have been proven to be extremely effective! We weigh the babies at the beginning and the end of the program, and the babies are almost always at a much healthier weight. Sometimes it can feel like we don’t do a lot to effect change here, that our work is just drops in a bucket. But watching 12 kids grow in front of your eyes? That’s magic.
I attended the training with one of my neighboring village’s Community Health Workers, Bossa. CHW’s play a hugely important role in the health of a village. They are often the only health worker people in isolated villages will meet, since health clinics are not accessible for a lot of Togolese people. Community Health Workers receive approximately $10 per YEAR from the Togolese government and are essentially asked to be in charge of their village. CHW’s are, in no uncertain terms, heroes.
Bossa is no exception. She is absolutely fearless. There is a lot of gender inequality in Togo—it’s common to encounter the opinion that men are just inherently better than women, an opinion that permeates all ages and educational levels. Bossa proves that she can do anything a man can do, except better, and with a baby on her back. Watching her go from timid at the beginning of the training to essentially running the show at the end was amazing.
One of the challenges of programs like FARN is finding a way to execute it well and make it sustainable at the same time. Ideally, these trainings will help CHW’s and other health workers to plan and carry out these activities without us. (Peace Corps doesn’t want to be here forever!) So it’s really important for us to make sure that the Togolese are running the show. We’re really just there to make sure everything goes smoothly. For our practice run, we had 3 Peace Corps Volunteers and 3 Togolese counterparts all leading the sessions together. Talk about too many cooks in the kitchen!
Next month, Bossa and I will be leading a FARN workshop in her village. We are both really, really excited about it! If it’s successful, we have plans to do the program in two other villages as well.
This work is what I came here to do. I can’t wait to keep going!
*A few words on traveling in Togo
· Side-view mirrors are a luxury, not a requirement
· After seven months here, I’ve found myself spending a disturbing amount of time yelling at drivers for overcharging me by approximately a nickel. It’s the principle!
· It is possible and not uncommon to buy a goat on the side of the road and bring said goat into a moving vehicle.
· There is a National Road, which travels from the capital city in the south to the northernmost city.
· There are parts of the National Road that probably cannot be legally classified as “a road.”
· I have been asked for my WhatsApp contact information almost every time I’ve entered a vehicle. For safety, I almost never give it out. When I do, I just get weird chain messages.