Hidden Pacific: Colour the difference for villagers caught in nutrition trap

By Clarke Gayford, Mike Scott

The Herald and World Vision want to raise $100,000 for the urgent water and sanitation needs in the Hanuabada village of Port Moresby, and World Vision wants your long-term support for ongoing work in the Pacific. Each day we'll be reporting on a particular problem for the region and showcasing how World Vision has helped. Today, food and nutrition.

Children with bloated bellies and tiny arms, clearly suffering the effects of malnutrition, waited to welcome us to the villages of Tumnung and Bunapas.

At both we were generously offered lunch, a combination of slimy boiled sago - the starchy pith from the centre of palm stems - and small amounts of fish. Its warm gooeyness is definitely an acquired taste.

Sago is a staple part of the diet of the lowland people of Papua New Guinea. But it is almost pure carbohydrate with little nutritional value.

The diets in these rural villages, a couple of hours' drive from the country's northern coast, lack nutritional variety.

Poor nutrition remains a serious concern in Papua New Guinea. Almost half of all children are affected by malnutrition. It contributes to the country's high under-5 mortality rate.
In the Buang community on the outskirts of Port Moresby, the saying used and taught at mealtimes is "colourful kai kai".

It's a simple phrase with a huge impact on health. It means, simply, that by adding colour (a variety of vegetables) to your food you will gain health benefits from the nutrients.

We might take a saying like that for granted, but this community, a squatter group displaced from their previous settlement more than three decades ago, have, until recently, had little understanding of what good healthy food actually is.

They live in poverty, with rusting, corrugated iron fences creating rough boundaries between family groups. These are hard, overcrowded living conditions, with little access to education.

Kids wash their hands as they prepare to make food on the outskirst of Port Moresby. Photo / Mike Scott
Kids wash their hands as they prepare to make food on the outskirst of Port Moresby. Photo / Mike Scott

For decades people have moved from rural villages to Port Moresby looking to improve their living standards. And urbanisation is increasing.

Extended families live in small homes on stilts, using the space below for shade from the tropical sun. This has created economic and social pressure as population growth has outpaced job opportunities.

Cramped living conditions in urban settlements quickly spread disease. There were certain communities in the capital that weren't safe for us to visit. There is not enough access to good food.

In Papua New Guinea, malnutrition accounts for stunting in 48 per cent of all children. It affects mental development too.

Read more: Hidden Pacific: Q&A
Why we're tackling poverty
Communities at the heart of youngsters' education
A simple weapon in the fight against disease

A lack of all essential minerals limits cognitive processing and leads to an increased risk of developing chronic diseases later in life. It's a cruel start to what is a very difficult existence.

At the rear of the settlement the cramped houses give way to rich fertile farmland, where, thanks to training introduced via World Vision, the community is rapidly learning how to create better food security for themselves.

Not just growing more food to eat, but, crucially, sharing that information with other families and villages to allow them to provide better nutrition for their children.

There is a huge emphasis here on families becoming self-sufficient.

Take, for example, a simple thing like growing corn, which they have learnt can be grown when their usual crops are in the off-season. This helps to extend access to fresh vegetables year round.

The corn can be dried and husked and the seeds shared with other families so it provides food and the means for others to support themselves.

Community leader Henry Yallum explains: "The kitchen garden is for us to get the seeds for planting, and the family to harvest and cook nutritious vegetables for their families.

"It helps us to get training and the community members will take the knowledge and plant their own kitchen garden. We save the seeds for dry season and plant them again, and it is used to teach other families."

Crops used to be seasonal but now year-round produce such as pumpkins, eggplant,
watermelon, lettuce, capsicum, tomatoes and aibika (a leaf) are grown readily.

Teaching families to grow, prepare and cook nutritious food is helping address the high levels of malnutrition affecting the development of children in villages. Photo / Mike Scott
Teaching families to grow, prepare and cook nutritious food is helping address the high levels of malnutrition affecting the development of children in villages. Photo / Mike Scott

Excess produce has even been sold, with the extra money going toward a generator and water pump to further develop the community's ability to irrigate crops.

It's dinner time in Buang and over burning embers under a corrugated shelter a woman stirs a large pot adding the final aibika leaves to thicken the meal.

Adults here are encouraged to eat with children so they too can share in the value this balanced meal provides.

As a guest it's insisted I have some too, and as the steam clears from the hot bowl handed to me I can see that a variety of vegetables added to a base of canned tuna has made this meal very much a "colourful kai kai".

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- NZ Herald

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