‘Obulesi Obulahi’ project- transforming the lives of many

Counties Editor's Pick Nairobi Social

Chicken is Kakamega County’s most well-known delicacy. In virtually all homesteads, roaming indigenous chicken is a common sight. Villagers might frown at a home in which the birds aren’t reared, even if poverty is responsible.

Chickens’ by-product, eggs, may contribute to a family’s dietary needs. The Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (Kalro) estimates that an indigenous hen could lay about 60 eggs in a year. This is lower than the Kalro improved indigenous chicken which may lay between 220-280 eggs.

Eggs in many parts of Navakholo sub-county are shrouded in beliefs that have made a number of locals to avoid feeding them to babies less than two years. It’s claimed that eggs make babies dumb.

Some of these beliefs have been propagated by grandmothers. Eveline Sitandi, a widow, has been out for almost two years now, to counteract the retrogressive thought promoted by fellow grandmothers.

The Navakholo sub-county nutrition officer, Janet Auma, says, “Grandmothers are the biggest change agents. If you want any change in the culture about feeding children, we have to involve the Kukhu Omukosi.”

Sitandi lives in Buchangu Neveki in Navakholo, Kakamega County. Since October 2022, she’s been popularly known as Kukhu Omukosi. Kukhu means grandmother in the local dialect. Her title means she’s endeared herself to many.

This grandmother rears a few chickens that lay eggs. But her eggs serve to demonstrate that babies’ speech isn’t impeded if they eat them.

“If I meet a woman with such a belief, I’ll persuade her to come with her baby to my home,” she says. “I would boil an egg rather than fry it and then feed the baby assuring the mother that her baby’s speech won’t be affected. If the mother sees the baby enjoying it, she’ll begin giving eggs to her baby.”

After she embarked on what she’s been doing, she was accused by villagers of subjecting their children to the ‘danger’ paused by the eating of eggs since they purportedly cause dumbness. “I would assure them that once their baby turned eight months old, they would begin talking.”

Sitandi’s daughter-in-law, Eunice Shari, is a mother of three aged seven, five and one years.  For her one-year-old, she practiced exclusive breastfeeding for six months. The first time she fed an egg to her lastborn, was when he was seven months old.

“I heard women say that eggs would cause my baby not to talk,” she recalls. “I chose to ignore them.”

“It is not true that if babies eat eggs, they’ll be dumb,” she says. “My baby repeats what I say and he responds when I call him.”

The Centre for Behaviour Change and Communication (CBCC) Africa, has been running the obulesi obulahi project in the Navakholo sub-county. The two-year project being implemented in conjunction with the county government of Kakamega began in May 2021. It is funded by USAID.

The CBCC Africa Program Manager, Kevin Otieno says, “The main objective of the project is to improve the uptake of high-impact nutrition behaviour among 4,000 caregivers using innovative social behaviour change approaches and technologies.”

Obulesi obulahi means optimal caregiving. Sitandi strives to positively influence women of reproductive age. Her desire is to see them cultivate proper nutritional practices and embrace a shift in behaviour that would favour the right development of children. She has been taught how critical the first 1000 days of a baby’s life is.

The obulesi obulahi project aims at improving nutrition for maternal, infant, and young children aged below two years. The area of focus is Bunyala West and Ingotse Matiha wards.

There are four Kukhu Omukosis, in Buchangu Neveki area. Sugar cane is a dominant crop here. Sitandi keeps a kitchen garden.

She grows cassava and a variety of vegetables to supplement her food. She uses her garden to encourage younger women to establish similar parcels to boost food security.

Sitandi mobilizes from homesteads, women of reproductive age to attend community health forums on designated days. Buchangu dispensary is often the destination for her community unit members offering mother-to-mother support.

Present at such gatherings are public health officers, community health volunteers, and assistants, among others. Several health talks are delivered. The topics mainly focus on proper feeding methods for mothers and their infants. Kukhu Omukosi’s voice has to be heard by the attentive audience. She begins with a recap of the last lesson.

She then emphasizes to newly expectant mothers, “As soon as you realize that you are pregnant, begin attending clinic.”

Health officials recognize that dislodging firmly entrenched cultural practices within a community is an uphill task.

Male involvement is still appalling. Auma, says, “It’s important that when we have such a meeting, we call the father of the baby, the grandmother, and where possible, even the grandfather.”

In her view, this would signify family support and contribute to changing some of the negative cultural practices.

An exception is Elphas Wekesa. He’s the only male present at the meeting on the day of the visit. He’s accompanied his wife, Sylvia Andanje. The couple has eight children including two sets of twins.  The last twins have just begun their seventh month.

They’ve come with their two sets of twins; three boys and one girl. Wekesa’s mother, Jane Wataka has also tagged along. This family had been dissuaded from feeding their babies eggs.

The World Health Organization recommends that exclusive breastfeeding be practiced for six months before the introduction of other foods. Wataka inappropriately recommended feeding the first set of twins when they were younger.

She says, “Whenever I would hear them crying, I would instruct that they be given porridge even though they hadn’t turned six months. I was acting out of ignorance.”

Andanje confirms, “I would begin giving them porridge just after three months.”

Wekesa adds, “We would begin giving our children ugali at even three months of age.” He appreciates the education that he’s been subjected to by the obulesi obulahi project.

But their last twins have been handled differently. “I have exclusively breastfed them for six months,” Andanje says. “I’ve now begun serving them little portions of porridge.”

Wataka has been observing her son accompanying her daughter-in-law to Buchangu to benefit from obulesi obulahi teachings. “I rejoice when I see my son accompanying my daughter-in-law to such meetings,” she says.

Sitandi regularly visits pregnant mothers in their homes as soon as she learns that they are pregnant. She emphasizes to them the importance of attending antenatal clinics.

Obulesi Obulahi is an innovative social and behaviour change approach seeking to strengthen the capacity of service providers through health facilities and the community to deliver quality information and services.

Bushiri Health Centre is one of the facilities experiencing a swell in the number of mothers seeking medical and nutritional-related services.

At strategic points, are monitors replaying video productions featuring another kukhu omukosi, Sophie Nekesa, conveying a message regarding mother and child health.

Sisokhe Dispensary is yet another facility that’s promoting obulesi obulahi. One of the CHVs here is Bernadetta Wawire of Mukhula Support Group. She replays a preloaded health and nutrition message from a tool known as digisomo. The messages are in the local dialect of the Banyala.

One of the messages is voiced by a Kukhu Omukosi. After replaying the message, Wawire stresses what the grandma has highlighted. She prefaces her final appeal with the words, “As Kukhu Omukosi has said…”

Whitney Juma is expecting her second baby. She’s seven months pregnant. Her kitchen garden is thriving. She grows vegetables, groundnuts, and sweet potatoes. Part of her nutritional needs is met by her farm.

Juma lives very close to Kukhu Sitandi, who regularly checks on her with vital reminders. Juma doesn’t take for granted Sitandi’s caring attitude.

“When I became pregnant, Kukhu Omukosi visited me and advised me to begin attending the clinic,” she says. “When I did, I was given iron and folic acid tablets and a mosquito net.”

She understands why iron and folic acid are needed. “They assist in the proper formation of a baby in the womb and therefore prevent disability.”

Through obulesi obulahi, it is hoped that the nutritional needs of mothers, infants, and young children will be satisfied.

The Vice Chairman of the CBCC Africa Board, Titus Kitonga, says, “There are serious concerns about sustainability and so we are appealing and will continue to look out for partners to continue with this work.”

By William Inganga

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