Healthy at the start, healthy for life

Kids really, really need to start life with vitamin-rich foods if they want to grow up to be healthy, strong and productive adults. Roger Thurow shares the story of Harriet and her son Abraham. This post was originally published on The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting’s website

A mother knows.

“This child is brilliant,” Harriet Okaka says about her one-year-old son, Abraham.  She isn’t bragging, just observing.  “I can tell, just by looking at him,” she says, “the way he plays, the way he is.”

Photo credit: Harriet wades through a lush carpet of green plants with Abraham perched on her back, wrapped in a white blanket. Image by Roger Thurow. Uganda, 2013.

Harriet, 33, is a smallholder farmer in the northern Uganda village of Okii, near the town of Lira.  Abraham is her sixth child.

“The other children started walking by the time they were two years old.  Abraham is walking at one,” she says.  The mother has noticed things.  When Abraham sees an animal, he motions for it to come, she notes.  When he hears music, he claps and dances.  “These are indications that his brain is developing well,” she says.

On a hot afternoon, Harriet and Abraham are sitting under a mango tree, savoring the shade with a dozen other women and their young children.  A mango falls from a branch and bounces in the middle of them.  Abraham is the first to react, quickly crawling a couple of feet to grab the fruit.  Abraham takes a bite.  All the adults laugh.  Harriet beams.

“You see,” she says.

It is no mere coincidence, Harriet believes, that Abraham was born on the day in April 2012 when she and other women farmers had completed their first training session in the art of planting orange-flesh sweet potatoes and a new variety of beans.  They are crops rich in micronutrients essential for the health of women and their children: Vitamin A in the sweet potatoes and iron in the beans.  The crops – particularly beneficial during the 1,000 Days period between when a woman becomes pregnant and the second birthday of the child — were developed by an organization called HarvestPlus, pioneers in biofortifying staple foods with higher levels of micronutrients, and deployed by the humanitarian agency, World Vision.

They were different crops for the Ugandans, especially the sweet potatoes, which are normally white or yellow and lacking in micronutrient content.  But Harriet eagerly planted and tended her fields.  The harvest coincided with the time she was beginning to supplement Abraham’s breastfeeding with complementary foods.  She fed him a mashed up combination of the orange sweet potato and the high-iron beans.

“It’s good for brain development,” she says a week after Abraham’s first birthday.  Her youngest child hasn’t battled sickness as her other children did, she notes.  She believes it must be the new crops.

She tells the story of her second youngest child, Isaac, now 5, how he was very sick at the end of last year.  He was losing weight.  His skin was rough.  Harriet took him to the nearby clinic several times.  Tests were performed.  None of the doctors knew what was wrong.  Isaac was so thin, so weak, his mother was terrified that he would die.

At wits end, she turned to the new food.  “I just kept feeding him the beans and the orange sweet potatoes,” she says.  “And he got better.”

With the seeds and the vines from HarvestPlus, Harriet had planted a quarter-acre of beans and a small plot of sweet potatoes in 2012.  This year, convinced of the nutritional benefits, she is expanding her efforts.  She rented an additional two acres and in March covered them with the high-iron beans.  By the end of April, she waded through a lush carpet of green plants with Abraham perched on her back, wrapped in a white blanket.  While she pulled weeds, he slept.

Harriet sees a market for the beans and orange sweet potatoes; the demand in the community is high.  Everyone knows the story of Isaac, who has recovered and is once again wearing the chartreuse uniform shirt of the Good Luck Nursery School.  They see Abraham, lively and healthy.  Harriet wants everyone to share in the benefits of the micronutrient rich food.

A mother knows.  “If my children are healthy,” she says, “then the neighbors’ children must also be healthy.”

Take action for the “neighbors’ children” now. Urge world leaders to make measurable commitments to reduce chronic malnutrition for 25 million children by 2016. Sign our petition here