El Nino and its ef­fects on early child­hood development in Zim

Chronicle (Zimbabwe) - - Feature - Than­deka Moyo

THABISO strug­gles to carry three ripe corky mon­key or­anges pop­u­larly known as umkhemeswane to his first cus­tomer for the day, a driver from a neigh­bour­ing dis­trict.

Dressed in torn shorts and a dirty T-shirt that is a size too small, the filthy boy with mu­cus slid­ing down his cheeks, presents the fig­ure of an unin­spir­ing sales­man.

He looks like part of the 27 per­cent of chil­dren un­der five years in Zim­babwe af­fected by stunted growth.

His tiny fin­gers are barely able to hold the wild fruits but he des­per­ately needs the $0.30 he stands to gain after sell­ing his mer­chan­dise.

At just three years, while his peers in ur­ban ar­eas play with toys and get pam­pered, Thabiso has to help about 10 cousins- whose ages range be­tween three and 12 years and are dressed like rag dolls- in his ex­tended fam­ily to sell what­ever wild fruit would be in sea­son to com­ple­ment that one daily meal which his fam­ily can pro­vide.

They have to walk more than a kilo­me­tre from his home in Dakiwe Vil­lage in ru­ral Lu­pane, Mata­bele­land North province, lo­cated about 200km from Bu­l­awayo to a dusty road where they sit in wait for cus­tomers.

On av­er­age, five ve­hi­cles pass through the dusty gul­ley in­fested road and on a good day, Thabiso and his cousins can raise about $0.70 as cus­tomers hag­gle over the price.

Born to two teenage school dropouts, Thabiso has been ac­cus­tomed to hav­ing a meal or two per day mainly isitshwala and boiled veg­eta­bles.

“We are sell­ing th­ese fruits to buy food. My aunt and un­cle — Thabiso’s par­ents are un­em­ployed and struggling to put food on the ta­ble hence the need to sell umkhemeswane. I re­cently fin­ished writ­ing my Grade Seven fi­nal ex­am­i­na­tions and I now have to work for my meals,” says Brid­get*, one of his cousins.

An el­derly woman from the same vil­lage im­me­di­ately joins in the con­ver­sa­tion and con­firms that vil­lagers have no food. “The cur­rent drought has left all of us with no food and it’s a mir­a­cle that some can still af­ford to eat twice a day. Un­for­tu­nately due to drought and poverty, we have seen a lot of teenage preg­nan­cies in our vil­lage,” says Gogo MaNdlovu.

She adds that most teenage par­ents are school dropouts who aban­doned school due to drought and fi­nan­cial prob­lems. “I feel pity for tod­dlers who will never en­joy healthy food like we did when we grew up. The only food avail­able for all of us is maize and that is what we can feed our ba­bies with.”

The Zim­babwe Vul­ner­a­bil­ity As­sess­ment Com­mit­tee (ZimVAC) 2016 Ru­ral Liveli­hoods As­sess­ment shows that the El Niño in­duced drought af­fected most parts of South­ern Africa and left 4,1 mil­lion Zim­bab­weans in dire need of food.

Ru­ral food in­se­cu­rity was pro­jected to rise ap­prox­i­mately to 30 per­cent from the 16 per­cent (1,5mil­lion peo­ple) which was es­ti­mated in May 2015.

Ex­perts say that the worst af­fected age group is the zero to five years.

ZimVAC in the Jan­uary 2016 rapid as­sess­ment in­di­cated a wors­en­ing nu­tri­tion sit­u­a­tion in the coun­try. At 5.7 per­cent, the Global Acute Mal­nu­tri­tion (GAM) rate of chil­dren aged 6-59 months was the high­est recorded in 15 years.

Ac­cord­ing to the same re­port, the Se­vere Acute Mal­nu­tri­tion (SAM) rate for chil­dren aged 6-59 months was 2.1 per­cent, slightly above the two per­cent thresh­old for emer­gency re­sponse in Zim­babwe.

The Na­tional Nu­tri­tional Department in the Min­istry of Health and Child Care says Zim­babwe is fac­ing a chronic form of mal­nu­tri­tion.

“We still have acute se­vere mal­nu­tri­tion chal­lenges in Zim­babwe and the preva­lence is at three per­cent. We also have a high num­ber of un­der­weight chil­dren aged be­tween zero and five years and gen­er­ally th­ese fig­ures have re­mained stag­nant since five years ago,” said the department. “Un­for­tu­nately we are now struggling with a chronic form of mal­nu­tri­tion called stunt­ing which de­vel­ops over a long pe­riod. It is eas­ily recog­nised when a child un­der five is shorter than his peers and 27 per­cent of our chil­dren are stunted.”

The department con­firmed that most dis­tricts in Mata­bele­land province are se­verely af­fected by stunt­ing.

A nurse sta­tioned in Mata­bele­land South says the drought had left many un­der fives in the province suf­fer­ing from kwash­iorkor.

World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion de­fines kwash­iorkor as a nu­tri­tional dis­ease in chil­dren aged six months to four years caused by de­fec­tive breast­feed­ing from a sick and mal­nour­ished mother.

“We used to ad­min­is­ter F100, a type of med­i­ca­tion high in pro­tein but due to star­va­tion, our pa­tients re­lapse be­cause when they go back home they do not have ac­cess to bal­anced di­ets,” he said. “When they get home, they may share the med­i­ca­tion with other chil­dren in need of food and our ef­forts to treat the dis­ease are use­less be­cause star­va­tion is preva­lent in most families.”

En­gi­neer Stan­ley Na­zombe a mem­ber of the na­tional drought re­sponse com­mit­tee says thou­sands of un­der fives were sub­jected to one meal per day and un­bal­anced diet in Zim­babwe.

“The im­pact that this drought has had on the liveli­hoods of chil­dren un­der five is quite im­mense. For starters, moth­ers who are sup­posed to pro­vide breast milk for the first months of a child’s life can­not af­ford a bal­anced diet mean­ing the health of th­ese chil­dren is af­fected from the time they are born. Drought lim­its the phys­i­cal growth of th­ese un­derfi With no wa­ter at home, the to­tal num­ber of nu­tri­tious meals they must have daily is re­duced and they may fail to be washed and wear clean clothes which af­fects their development,” he said.

E n g Na­zombe said most families were fail­ing to grow veg­eta­bles and ce­re­als to balance their meals.

“Breast­milk which is rec­om­mended for new born ba­bies is also af­fected by drought. When a breast­feed­ing woman is fail­ing to prop­erly feed her­self and pro­duce enough milk, the child is bound to suf­fer stunted growth from the on­set. Stunted growth not only af­fects the phys­i­cal body but also the so­cial as­pect and growth in terms of in­tel­li­gence.”

M i s s Ja c q u e l i n e Nkomo, a psy­chol­o­gist says chil­dren like Thabiso are bound to have chal­lenges de­vel­op­ing in ev­ery as­pect.

“Firstly be­sides the fact that he comes from a poor fam­ily, his chances of go­ing to school are re­duced be­cause both his par­ents dropped out of school. If they are struggling to put food on the ta­ble, they will treat his ed­u­ca­tion as a sec­ondary is­sue,” she says.

“A child’s ac­cess to nu­tri­tious food es­pe­cially dur­ing the first few years of his life has a great im­pact and is di­rectly linked to their development so­cially, phys­i­cally and men­tally,” she says.

Miss Nkomo says chil­dren like Thabiso may suf­fer emo­tional abuse from frus­trated par­ents who are fail­ing to cater for all their needs. “Fi­nan­cially con­strained par­ents tend to be ag­gres­sive to­wards their chil­dren and with drought in the pic­ture, they may fail to ad­dress all his so­cial needs as a de­vel­op­ing child. No­table is the fact that chil­dren like Thabiso are prone to suf­fer from kwash­iorkor and other many dis­eases which may weaken their im­mune sys­tems and as such lead to low self­es­teem.”

She adds that un­der-fives who suf­fer mal­nu­tri­tion may suf­fer slow brain development as a re­sult. “Stud­ies have shown that a cer­tain num­ber of nu­tri­ents are re­quired in the development of the in­tel­li­gence quo­tient (IQ) for hu­mans which be­gins as soon as they are born. The type of en­vi­ron­ment in which a child is so­cialised also de­ter­mines how he will be­have later in life and in this case I be­lieve all th­ese fac­tors will hin­der Thabiso’s po­ten­tial to be­come an ed­u­cated, en­er­getic and re­source­ful young per­son in the fu­ture Zim­babwe.”

Ac­cord­ing to nu­tri­tion ad­vo­cates, many Zim­bab­wean un­der-fives will strug­gle to go to pri­mary school and to pro­ceed to other lev­els of ed­u­ca­tion.

“Food short­ages have slowed down the progress to­wards end­ing mal­nu­tri­tion in un­der-fives. How­ever that trend is preva­lent even in older chil­dren as some have aban­doned school due to drought.”

Mata­bele­land North Pro­vin­cial Ed­u­ca­tion Direc­tor, Mrs Boithatelo Mn­guni, re­cently said the drought be­ing ex­pe­ri­enced coun­try­wide was tak­ing a toll on pupils in her province.

Mrs Mn­guni said about 6 000 pupils have dropped out of school due to hunger and long dis­tances they walk to school ev­ery­day.

She said re­cently there was an in­ci­dent where a child col­lapsed at school and was taken to clinic, where it was dis­cov­ered that she had not eaten any­thing in three days. — @thamamoe Brid­get* not her real name

Visit www.chron­i­cle.co.zw for more pic­tures and pic­to­rial data

Baby Thabiso (3) strug­gles to hold two corky mon­key or­anges ( which he sells, to­gether with cousins, to help his par­ents put food on the ta­ble in Lu­pane. — (Pic­ture by Eliah Sauishoma).

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