01 Feb Young ambassadors inspiring Masiphumelele’s children to eat healthier
The ambassadors form part of the Nourished Child Ambassador Programme — an initiative following a multi-university research project that looked to find answers for addressing malnutrition among women and children.
“Take, banana. Take, take banana.
Peel, banana. Peel, peel banana.
Eat banana. Eat, eat banana.”
Lwando Siboninge looks fashionable in his sports jacket, jeans and sneakers. He is grooving a beat and coaxing a group of willing Grade 1 learners at the Ukhanyo Primary School in Masiphumelele to sing along to his fruit song. They have formed a circle around him, and all the children are participating, smiling. Even the teacher is singing along as she watches from across her desk with approval.
“I didn’t know anything about healthy food or the types of food that can make me sick before I did this ambassador programme,” says Siboninge. “But now… now I am a role model. Kids call my name in the street. I have to think about how I behave and what I eat now, too.”
Siboninge is one of the six ambassadors who were trained in 2022 as part of the Nourished Child Ambassador Programme, an initiative following a multi-university research project that looked to find answers for addressing malnutrition among women and children. The research was conducted in Zweletemba and Masiphumelele.
According to Scott Drimie, adjunct professor at Stellenbosch University and one of the Nourished Child study researchers, one key insight from the study was that community-led initiatives which hold the health and wellbeing of the child at their core have the potential to gain support and attention from a variety of stakeholders.
“The goal of child wellbeing elicits a deeply emotional response and necessitates scrutiny into aspects of social development, hygiene and sanitation, economic development, health, basic education and urban and spatial planning. Keeping the child at the centre of the community-led initiative has the potential to be a catalyst for goals that cross the borders of various systems and has the potential to ultimately improve food environments,” says Drimie.
Through a partnership with the Masiphumelele Creative Hub (MCH), an active and dynamic NGO in Masi led by founder Yandiswa Mazwana, community members were selected and trained as local ambassadors. Over the course of three months in the first half of 2022, the ambassadors underwent a training programme to equip them with the basic skills to support a healthy food environment for children and adults in Masi. Sessions, led by a variety of specialists in the field, included a critical overview of the food landscape in Masi, stakeholder mapping, nutrition education, advocacy training, hygiene and sanitation education, breastfeeding support education, and training on how to communicate effectively.
In a goal-setting session, the ambassadors jointly decided on their ultimate vision: a healthier Masiphumelele by 2050. They went on to create goals that include the building of an enabling environment for children through advocating for change and providing nutrition education to community members.
Practically, this means they reached out to community stakeholders to introduce themselves and their ambitions, and they are now working closely with the primary school, informal creches and Early Childhood Development centres (ECDs), elderly clubs, and the local clinic.
Ambassador Zizipho Goni explains that they work in groups of two and have weekly scheduled slots at the respective sites. They create talks, activities, and songs to make information relevant and interesting, while also utilising physical resources like posters and pamphlets, and teaching skills such as building tippy taps or making vegetable gardens, to support their interactions. “We tailor the talks to the groups to meet them where they are at.”
Mazwana, who oversees the ambassador programme, says their most important long-term goal is that the people of Masiphumelele are empowered to take responsibility for their own health by changing their environment and their diets.
“Not only by making good decisions based on education and awareness but also in concrete ways of growing vegetables themselves or taking part in the community vegetable garden. Masi is a strong and tight community. Starting awareness in some groups will have a domino effect on other people in the community,” says Mazwana.
So far, they have also led the development of 25 food gardens which include home gardens, school gardens and gardens at ECDs and creches. Mazwana and Drimie both believe that, in addition to the obvious benefits of providing accessible and nutritious produce, gardens also form spaces for action and discussion.
“I was surprised to find there is a lot of interest from the community to engage, much more than I expected,” says ambassador Siphokazi Mbemba. Mazwana attributes this interest partially to the passion and effort of the ambassadors. “You get back the energy that you give. It’s difficult to implement a programme with people who are not passionate. You’ve got to love the children and the community.”
In another classroom, more Grade 1 learners are eagerly putting up their hands and squealing with delight as ambassador Philiswa Mlahlo tests them on what she taught them last year, when they were in Grade R. Goni believes they are changing the children’s behaviour and mentality when it comes to fruit and vegetables through teaching them about the different colours and benefits of the foods.
“We are breaking it down to their level of understanding,” Mlahlo says.
According to Nomsa Ngalo, a volunteer working with MCH who also supports the ambassadors, the children at ECDs are also eager and “hungry to learn”.
They also engage with the elders in Masi through the two regular community groups, open to anyone from 50 years upwards.
“Many that attend these clubs suffer from chronic diseases of lifestyle,” says Goni. Mbemba adds that the clubs are meant to create safe spaces where older people can come to socialise and share their problems and learn handwork such as knitting and beading.
“It’s great to work with them because they also know a lot about gardening,” continues Goni.
With the help of pamphlets and their training, the ambassadors are now also providing them with information about realistic nutrition adaptations they can make to help manage their chronic disease and live a healthy lifestyle.
The community members are not the only ones who have benefited from the ambassador programme.
“With the children, I have learned that they each have their own character and that you have to have patience in teaching them,” Mhlalo laughs. She also gives talks at the clinic.
“I have gained a lot of confidence with this programme. I have also learnt that you need to earn people’s trust. It’s very important if you have one-on-one conversations with people about their health and food.”
Mbemba, who works alongside Mhlalo, in the clinic, says the programme gave her “a direction of what I want to do with my life”.
“It gave me a drive to make a change in the community,” she shares.
Being an ambassador is however not an easy task on an emotional level. “For some of these kids I’m a father figure now, or someone to look up to,” says Siboninge. “There are not a lot of guys working in this space. But I’m still learning and want to learn more about food security. Being in this role, taking the responsibility now sometimes of a father or a mother figure or social worker, is not easy.”
He however hopes that the project blueprint can eventually expand to the whole of the country so that more people can live healthier lives. “I’ve learned that now I’m not only living for me. I’m living for the people.”
Mazwana has many plans for the year ahead, such as getting support for the MCH kitchen to be able to provide nourishing lunchbox meals to some of the needy ECDs and creches they’ve identified through their work. Other plans for the Ambassadors include establishing a breastfeeding support group and engagement with even more stakeholders, community leaders and decision-makers to help improve the food environment in Masi.
“But we also really want to strengthen the programme and train more people in the community to be able to do this ambassador work,” says Mazwana. Though teaching community members about nutrition and planting gardens may not change the food system, she believes it may change how community members and decision makers think about food and the food environment.
“We can already see that change,” she says.
This article first appeared on Daily Maverick on 31 January 2023. It was written by Liezel Engelbrecht, a registered dietitian with a Master’s degree in public health nutrition. She worked alongside the Nourished Child research group and was involved with the Ambassador training programme.
*Nxtomboxolo Genu and Nondima Dyasi, not mentioned in the article, are two new Nourished Child Ambassadors. They joined early in 2023 to replace two younger ambassadors who went on to further their studies.