-Written by Saina Shrestha
[Note* This article intends to correlate the inter-generational cycle of malnutrition in Nepali communities (especially rural), and how the cultural feeding practices have direct or incidental impact on the maternal and child health. Aayam’s mother as the narrator tells her story as a girl child, as a young adolescent, and as a mother]
Today, my youngest sibling, my 5-year old brother was admitted to school. I am the eldest one to my parents, among the four daughters and a son. My parents grease elbows farming in whatever’s left of our little piece of land that produces limited chunk of barley and maize to fulfill seven starving mouths. I usually take care of the household chores and look after my younger siblings. I or my sisters, we’ve never been to school. Our father says that it is more suitable we learn to juggle the household responsibilities since we’ll be sent off to our husband’s house after marriage.
It’s my best friend Rama’s wedding today. Rama’s face was glowing with bridal makeup and happiness. She was getting hitched with her boyfriend Keshab. When her parents discovered about her relationship with Keshab, both the families met and decided to tie their knot. Visualizing my own marriage, I winked and smiled at my boyfriend Suresh who was playing panche-baaja at the wedding. However, my smile faded when I overheard an ugly looking old man with mustache asking my hand for marriage with my father at the wedding. Why does my father seem to be impressed with this man’s proposal? Arghhh!!
Today, I discovered that I’m expecting a child. Having missed my period two times in a row, I was told that I was going to be a mother. I was 16 and Suresh, 17 at the time we ran off one year ago. My parents had forced me to marry that old man at Rama’s wedding and I did not want that at all. Convincing my parents for marriage with Suresh emerged to be impossible, as Suresh belonged from the community of lower caste. So, we didn’t have any other choice but to elope.
Today marks 8 months and 24 days of my pregnancy. Tallying the number of days my baby has perched in the womb; it should accompany us in the coming week. Luckily, my pregnancy wasn’t that hard on me because my stomach didn’t fill out much as compared to others women’s whose belly looked the size of a pillow.
Today my son, Aayam is 3 months old. He is my bundle of joy. I feed him my breast milk only few times a day because the breastmilk production is getting low. Hoping for his good health, I have started giving him plain rice and packet milk. My mother in law also gives him few spoons of water after an oil massage guessing he might be thirsty. I wish I could give my son ‘serelek’ (cerelac) which the happy chubby baby in TV eats. But the income of my husband Suresh, waged as a porter, does not allow us to have means for market supplies like sereleks.
Today, we took Aayam to our traditional healer, Jhankri bajey for the fifth time this week. My mother-in-law believes that my son (who has been quite ill since four weeks) should restore to health after a few more visitation to Jhankri bajey. Aayam has gone pale, has thin limbs and sparse copper-colored hair. His face looks wrinkled and his tummy, all big and bulged out. We have even made an offering of a rooster to the family deity but Aayam’s health does not seem to bloom.
Today, Sharmila (my neighbor) rang in to my house making me known of an event being held in the “chautari” (a tree-shadowed area) nearby. I went along with Sharmila to find a bountiful figure of women rounded up from our locality. A lady in a blue sari was leading the mob. The lady gestured everyone to take seats and we did as she said.
She introduced herself as Indira, a female community health volunteer from the health post uphill from our ward. She had accumulated women with children under two years of age from our community. I have never paid a visit to the health post because my mother-in-law suggests that it’s non-essential when we can always reckon on Jhankri bajey for our health issues.
Indira didi looked like someone well-read and in the know. She gave a detailed counseling on nutrition for pregnant and lactating mothers and their babies. We were also acquainted on the practices of breastfeeding, why and how it was beneficial (for both the mother and her child).
Everything she talked about, I took under advisement. It was then I learned how important something I had never heard of before (nutrition) was. I realized the malnutrition problem cycle which began since my childhood. I didn’t get an access to education as a child. So, I wasn’t able to learn about need of nutrition. Then, I married at a very young age and gave birth to Aayam without being physically and mentally mature. My nutrition was also never my priority during pregnancy and lactation. As a result Aayam was born underweight. I was also not adequately breast feeding him. I was amazed to find out that our locally available foods are more nutritious for the baby than the artificial market foods. I felt so stupid for introducing solid food before Aayam reached 6 months of age. The guilt was building on me for not consulting with Indira didi sooner. I felt greatly responsible for Aayam’s ill health.
During the closing of the session, I moved up to Indira didi and told her that my son’s growth wasn’t accelerating as much as it should and that he falls sick very often. She came along to my house with me and examined Aayam for a concise two minutes. She took out tape look-alike equipment that had green, yellow and red colors on it and put it over his arms. She then turned over to me and summoned all my family members. She gave health and nutrition counseling to our entire family. She also particularly requested my husband and mother-in-law to be more supportive in rearing and caring of me and my child. Finally, she suggested us to visit the health post with Aayam as soon as possible.
Today is Aayam’s third birthday. He looks unerringly like his father, the same square-shaped fair face, big brown eyes and narrow lips. He has a chubby face and stout limbs. He runs around chasing the rooster chicks in the front yard and giggles when trips over and hits the ground.
I was born in a village called Pipalkot, Bajhang district of Nepal where the whole area is affected by chronic food deficits most times of the year. I was born poor and raised illiterate, unable to tell apart the rights and wrongs, indecisive in the matter of my family’s health. The past year I’ve realized what it’s like to be under supervision and mindfulness.
I now have the right picture on how to enforce nutrition during the golden thousand days, that to raise a healthy child is to give rise to healthy women first. The previous year at the health post, my son was diagnosed as malnourished. With analysis and follow up on time at the health post, he was able to reclaim his health and regain his childhood. Today, my son Aayam is healthier than ever I as a mother, happier than ever.