Two-year-old Naitik Kumar Rajbhar nestles in his mother’s lap outside their home in Bhatigachh, Nepal. The longer they sit together the closer he edges toward sleep, until his eyes close completely and his mother, Kabita Devi Rajbhar, carries him inside. She lays him on a large wooden bed, pulls a white mosquito net over him and steps back outside.
While he sleeps, she gets to work at the outdoor stove roasting grains and legumes for super flour — the food that, when mixed with water and cooked into porridge, helped bring her malnourished son back to health.
A year ago, Rajbhar could tell Naitik was underweight.
“I was looking at other children. I felt like they were so good, but when I saw my own child I thought, ‘He’s very thin, what will happen?’” says Rajbhar. She had purchased vitamins to help him grow, but that wasn’t enough.
Then MCC partner Brethren in Community Welfare Service (BICWS) came to her home and offered her nutrition training, lessons on how to make super flour and supplies to get started.
Only three ingredients are needed to make super flour — rice or wheat, corn and a protein like chickpeas or soybeans. The combination of carbohydrates and protein in the flour, when cooked with vitamin-filled vegetables, provides the needed combination of nutrients. (Learn how to make super flour.)
The ingredients are common and there is no expensive equipment to purchase. But for Rajbhar, learning how to make the super flour was the difference between a thin boy she worried about and the healthy child napping inside her house.
According to the United Nations World Food Program, approximately 41 per cent of children in Nepal are stunted and 29 per cent are underweight. In Bhatigachh, located in Morang District in southeastern Nepal where BICWS works, local health workers estimate half of the children under 5 don’t weigh as much as they should.
BICWS, the service arm of the Brethren in Christ church in Nepal, teaches families what’s needed for a balanced diet and provides training on gardening, small-scale farming and fish farming. With new knowledge and skills, families know what they should eat and can grow it themselves or earn enough to buy it.
Reaching all those families, however, requires the dedication of local BICWS staff like Ajay Kumar Sah, a nutrition social mobilizer.
To choose participants for the super flour distribution and training, for instance, Sah rode his bicycle as far as an hour and a half one way, visiting each home in the area and weighing some 700 to 800 children.
After weighing each child, Sah referred the severely malnourished to the local government health clinic. Those in less severe condition were included in BICWS programs.
Sah grew up in Bhatigachh. While he could get work elsewhere with his training as a community medical assistant, “I think it’s important to work within my own community and provide service,” he says.
And he speaks the six languages found in the area, helping to put families at ease. “If you go into a community and you’re speaking Nepali and they are Santali maybe they won’t say everything. But if you speak Santali to them then they’ll speak very freely,” Sah says.
Although many families have limited income, a larger problem is that they’ve never learned what combination of foods provide the right nutrients. All the ingredients for super flour are locally available, but people just don’t know how to use them, says Sah.
“I think it’s important to work within my own community and provide service.”
That was the case for Rajbhar, whose mother used to make a flour for porridge. It contained corn but didn’t have the needed variety of nutrients that super flour has.
Now that Rajbhar knows how to make the super flour, she makes it about once a week, feeding some to her son about three times a day. She also gives him rice, dal made of lentils and vegetables from their small garden.
And in the last year she’s seen him gain weight and become more active.
Rajbhar also attended the BICWS kitchen garden training, which includes lessons on planting in rows, when to apply fertilizer and how to make organic compost. She received some hybrid seeds.
With the old seeds and methods, Rajbhar still needed to purchase some vegetables at the market, and she had to conserve them by eating just a little bit at a time. Now she’s growing more vegetables, and they are larger. “I get them from my own garden so I can eat them every day,” she says.
Farther northwest in Lalitpur District, the Rural Institution for Community Development (RICOD), another MCC partner, has a similar program. Four years ago, Devi Lopchan joined a mothers’ group coordinated by RICOD staff and local peer educators in her home community, Nallu.
When Lopchan joined the mothers’ group, her daughter Salina Lopchan was 4, and her health was poor. Salina would sometimes faint, and she had the large belly and thin limbs common with children who are malnourished. They made trips to the hospital, either paying for an ambulance, or walking for an hour before catching a bus into the city if she thought Salina was strong enough to make the journey.
Through the training with RICOD, Lopchan learned the importance of a balanced diet and how to make the super flour porridge. Durga Tamang, the field officer with RICOD, would encourage Lopchan to spend more time feeding her daughter, and to mix vegetables in with the porridge.
“I used to feed my children rice porridge. It would be just rice and water and salt and oil,” she says. “But after the training I learned to add green leaves, spinach or other greens, and then dal, lentils, which would be nutritious.” Over a period of two years Salina’s health improved.
Lopchan taught her husband Rajkumar Lopchan what she learned, and he also attended a nutrition workshop for men organized by RICOD. Now he often cooks the family’s evening meal and tries to incorporate proteins, carbohydrates and vitamins. Kitchen garden training through RICOD also helped them have more consistent vegetable harvests.
In the past, “I would just plant those vegetables and if they grew then they grew and we would eat, and if they didn’t then we wouldn’t have any vegetables to eat,” Devi Lopchan says.
Today watching Salina it would be hard to guess she had been malnourished. She darts in and out of their home. She sits outside with her mother reading. She chases goats up the hill and jumps out of the way with a laugh when one almost relieves itself on her feet.
Life still isn’t easy for either the Lopchans in Nallu or the Rajbhars in Bhatigachh.
Rajbhar’s husband goes to work as a labourer in India, returning once a month, and sometimes they don’t have enough money to buy the food they need. And the Lopchans are still living in a temporary shelter more than two years after the 2015 earthquake rendered their home unlivable.
But with the new knowledge and the skills to grow what they need, both families are better equipped to keep their children healthy today, as sleeping toddlers and climbing youngsters, and as they grow into the future.
Here’s how Kabita Devi Rajbhar makes super flour from rice, corn and soybeans.
- After leaving the soybeans and corn to dry for several hours, she tosses them in the air on a woven bamboo disk, a nanglo; each well-practiced flick removes unwanted stones, grass and dirt.
- Next she roasts everything over the open-fire stove. She mixes some sand with the corn and soybeans to keep an even heat while roasting, then uses pieces of dried palm branches to stir and carefully flick the fully roasted beans and kernels out of the pan, leaving the sand behind.
- Once she’s roasted everything, Rajbhar pounds it all in a metal cylinder. Then after a final toss on the nanglo the mixture is ready to be ground.
- The last step is to walk a half hour to a mill to have it ground into flour.