El Nino and its effects on early childhood development in Zim
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
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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).