Merla Moffat of Malawi taught me to cook. She showed me how to make “meatballs” out of pumpkin flesh and add them to a delicious stew that included pumpkin leaves, fresh tomatoes, and other local ingredients.
Elma Lazaro demonstrated how to make pumpkin flowers, egg and a little soy or peanut flour into a packable, nutritious nugget for kids’ lunches. Salinda NGalale created another beautiful dish with scrambled eggs, fried onions and tomatoes and boiled cassava.
These were just three of the women who showed me and my fellow American delegates with Catholic Relief Services how they are overcoming malnourishment in their villages. During my recent trip to the African country, I learned some great recipes, but more importantly, spending time with these women in the poorest villages in Malawi convinced me of one essential fact – even the poorest of the poor have the potential to change the future of their village and country, with a little help.
This truth is recognized and supported by our Church through the work of Catholic Relief Services and its partners. CRS, the international relief agency of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, recognizes the potential of the individuals it works with and develops each person’s ability to make significant changes to promote the dignity of life in their community.
In Ulongwe, one of the villages we visited, CRS works with Fr. Matthew and a dedicated group of Sacramentine nuns to provide nutrition and health programs. Malawi has one of the highest rates of stunting in the world – nearly half of all children in the country are affected. Stunting results from chronic malnutrition during the mother’s pregnancy and the first 1,000 days of a child’s life (birth to 2 years). If left untreated during those first two years, the children will suffer permanent physical and cognitive disabilities that impact their ability to learn and work.
Fr. Matthew, Sr. Maria, Sr. Helen, Sr. Margaret and Sr. Ornella work with parents in their area who want their kids to be healthy but have extremely limited resources. With technical assistance and funding from CRS, Fr. Matthew and the sisters operate a health clinic for pregnant and lactating women and children under 5, and a nutrition program for mothers.
At the clinic, children are measured to determine their current health status. Through a series of measurements, clinicians determine if a child is undernourished, and how severely. For the most severe cases, the clinic provides supplements. Pregnant and lactating mothers also receive medical care, but perhaps more importantly, they receive training in meal preparation to help them feed themselves and their families and end the cycle of malnourishment.
Our delegation traveled to M’bawa village with the sisters to see the nutrition program in action. We were greeted by dozens of singing and dancing women who welcomed us into their village and shared their knowledge. While other participants assisted, five of the women showed us five complete meals they have learned to prepare. In addition to Merla, Elma and Salinda, Joyce described how to make soy milk out of raw soybeans – a process that involves a two-foot tall mortar and five-foot long pestle – and Beatrice showed us how she makes “organic meat” from cow peas. All five women proudly and articulately walked us through the nutritious meals they prepared out of beans, cassava, papaya, peanuts, maringa leaves and other local crops. These women also teach others the same lessons, improving the health of hundreds.
The women’s potential to save the lives of their children is augmented by the work of our Church through CRS. It is not just CRS doing the work, it is all of us. CRS is our Church in action, and we can be very grateful that Catholic teaching is actively practiced in the poorest corners of the world.
For those of us in the United States who can’t be in Malawi to help, there is much to be done in global solidarity from here. For advocacy and other opportunities to assist in the work of our Church, join the Catholics Confront Global Poverty campaign at www.confrontglobalpoverty.org.