What's a mother to do?

Niger, December 31, 2014

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  • Nana Balki is the leader of her local mothers group, where women learn how to keep their babies and young children strong and healthy. All photo: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps

Nana Balki’s soft voice carries easily over the women gathered in front of her. The mothers sit on mats in the small village courtyard, infants swaddled in their arms and toddlers playing on their laps.

Nana is discussing what to do if their children get sick, punctuating her points with sweeping arm gestures that are all the more dramatic under her long burgundy hijab.

“When your baby is sick, you have to take him to the clinic,” she explains. “If the doctor gives you advice about what medicine to give your baby, you have to follow the directions. But it is also important to keep giving the baby good food — fruit and vegetables with vitamins.”

The lesson may seem simple, but in this remote area of Niger, in West Africa, traditional beliefs, limited resources and a lack of education for women have led to one of the highest rates of child malnutrition and illness in the country.

Nana is working to change that — along with more than 700 women trained by our partner Helen Keller International as part of a larger Mercy Corps program. Nana and her colleagues are now trained to educate fellow mothers about about proper infant care and nutrition. In all, nearly 5,000 woman are in the mothers care groups.

“I was selected by my village to be the leader of my mother care group. They knew that I am comfortable talking to people and I’m able to give answers,” she tells me.

It’s obvious that Nana is bright and kind, with the sort of warm eyes and inviting smile that make you trust her immediately. When the mother of seven invites me to her home, we sit on the floor and have a long conversation about the new ideas she’s trying to instill in her community. Two-year-old Hassina falls asleep at her side while she nurses her newborn daughter Asmau.

Changing beliefs isn’t quick or easy in a culture where the way of life has been engrained for generations. “My whole life, I've practiced what I learned from the elders,” Nana says. “Since the time of our ancestors, you start work in the early morning, you fetch water from the well and then pound [millet] seeds [into flour].”

Women’s days here are long and full of backbreaking work — most of it done with infants carried on their backs — and the struggle to meet their families’ most basic needs is only getting harder. Increasingly frequent droughts lead to severe food shortages as often as every other year now.

“We get very little rain,” Nana explains. “With the rain, we can plant, we can farm. But there is no guarantee. Right now, it is not possible for us to have enough food to eat every day.”

We know that knowledge is not the only thing that will fight hunger in this challenging environment. Mothers need the resources to make the healthier meals they’re learning about in the twice-weekly care group meetings.

That’s why part of the program is also providing fortified food for children under two and helping women start vegetable gardens in their village to diversify their diets. Nana and other leader mothers give cooking demonstrations to teach new, nutritious recipes.

“The big garden that Mercy Corps helped us start is giving us hope. There are a lot of different kinds of food in the garden that will help us feed our babies better,” Nana says. “We have more resources and knowledge to fight against hunger now.”

One of the other biggest changes that Nana has seen is the increased awareness that breastfeeding is best for infants. “One of the most important lessons I teach is about how to feed the baby with mother’s milk. It’s very rich and also gives the baby water, so there’s no need to give water instead,” she explains.

Even in just the first year, the results are evident. “All of these women are intelligent, and they remember what they learned,” Nana says. “Our babies are stronger and healthier."

But she believes her work is just the beginning: “There is no greater benefit than learning how to take care of our babies’ nutrition and health. The knowledge is in our village and will spread to even more people in other areas. This will help us for many, many years to come.”

Our team has already expanded this program to 36 more communities, and the care groups will continue to be supported with new training on subjects like family planning. We're also building resources like wells and irrigation so they can produce more food from their gardens.

The ultimate goal is for Nana and so many more mothers to be empowered, equal contributors to change — they are key to building stronger, healthier communities.