Fresh animal blood, raw meat, and raw milk: this is the diet the Masai people in Tanzania rely on for their nutritional needs dating back several centuries. Historically, they are known to be semi-nomadic and thus, animals such as cows, goats and sheep are a well-known commodity for their meat and blood and within easy reach.
Changing these strong cultural practices often is rejected by the Masai population because of their grounded beliefs and customs. However, since the inception of the Africare Tanzania’s Mwanzo Bora Nutrition Program in 2011, the Masai residing in the Mesera Village in the Manyara region are now adopting healthier nutrition practices, particularly for the well-being of their pregnant women and children in their tribe.
Mwanzo Bora seeks to reduce maternal anemia and childhood stunting across the country through providing education on pro-nutrition behaviors, such as visiting the clinic during pregnancy, eating a diversified diet, exclusively breastfeeding a child for the first six months and adopting small home gardens.
In Masai tribes, like this one in Mesera, the birth attendants are respected leaders and are given the responsibility of the health and well-being of the pregnant women in their tribes from conception through childbirth. They follow certain traditional practices that others consider taboo, such as restricting pregnant women to consume sufficient amount of food to control the baby’s weight for a safe and uncomplicated delivery, and mixing fresh animal blood with milk to feed women and children.
Despite these traditional customs, Mwanzo Bora, with the assistance of KINNAPA, a local civil society organization, has successfully educated one group of Masai birth attendants in the Kiketo District in Manyara through community health workers and peer support groups, one of the many interventions the program implements to teach pro-nutrition behaviors.
The change started with Nditolai Longoni, a traditional Masai birth attendant in the village, who joined one of the three peer support groups formed in the village. Here, she learned about the Mwanzo Bora model through social and behavior change communications and quickly realized there were a number of practices considered unhealthy for the mothers and children in their community.
“As you know, I am a traditional birth attendant and we have been supporting pregnant women in many aspects,” Nditolai said. “But since I started attending these sessions, I realize some of our practices are wrong. We need to change. Those were just old traditions.”
She also disclosed a number of practices she now thinks are wrong: massaging pregnant women if they have stomach pain; advising pregnant mothers to do hard work, such as fetching water, grazing cattle and chopping wood to build strength and avoid complications during delivery; restricting the consumption of water and ugali (dish made with maize flour) in the seventh month believing this will provide a safe delivery and controls the baby’s weight; restricting from visiting the antenatal clinic as it is believed that incorrect advice is given; and home delivery is safer than at the hospital or clinic since the birth attendant is familiar with the pregnancy from the time of conception.
Nditolai is now the catalyst of change for this village as she has managed to educate 16 other Masai birth attendants, who have all agreed to practice new approaches to nutrition. They now encourage mothers to visit the clinic for better healthcare service, advise them to eat sufficient food, including fruits and vegetables, and decrease the amount of strenuous work. Nditolai continues to educate her fellow attendants on pro-nutrition behaviors, through support from Mwanzo Bora, which has even resulted with the village adopting vegetable sack garden to provide fresh vegetables for mothers in the tribe.
Article written by Aliza Moorji-Hasham, Communications Specialist for the Mwanzo Bora Nutrition Project.
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