Professor Ngozi Nnam is a hunger heroine in Nigeria.
As a young girl taking trips around the country with her family, Ngozi couldn’t help but notice the number of young children with moon faces, distended stomachs, prominent ribs, and swollen feet. Their obvious suffering prompted questions in her mind: What had happened to them? And why were they like that when she was not?
She would later learn that the children she saw in those villages were severely malnourished, exhibiting symptoms of marasmus, anaemia, stunting, wasting, and kwashiorkor—diseases that she strongly feels should have no place in today’s modern world, in Nigeria or anywhere else. Her passion for eradicating these problems would become the bedrock of the her work on nutrition.
Today, Professor Nnam is the chairman of the Nutrition Society of Nigeria and the dean of the Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Nigeria Nsukka. For more than 20 years, she has focused all her academic and humanitarian strengths on the advocacy and empowerment of women—especially in the field of maternal and infant nutrition.
“You see these children, and you’re almost counting their ribs,” she says. “I know it’s a result of poor nutrition. It’s not that they don’t have food; sometimes, it’s that they don’t know what to eat. This stirred an emotion in me. I said to myself these children should not be allowed to waste like this. People need to be educated on the nutrition of infants.”
And so Ngozi set to work with the Scaling Up Nutrition movement, part of a forward-looking alliance across 56 countries that aims to mobilise a cross-section of civil society, businesses, donors, governments, and researchers to work together to end malnutrition and its debilitating effects.
In Nigeria, the network is part funded by DfiD, and targets groups of vulnerable women and their children with education, empowerment, and advocacy, as well as provides viable food alternatives for indigent women and teaching aids to help in the follow-up process.
Her role with Scaling Up Nutrition takes Ngozi back to those communities she travelled through so long ago. Now she’s holding meetings in town halls and sessions to educate women on how to nourish themselves and their babies both before birth and in the critical 1,000-day period afterwards.
Because while Nigeria may have made many development gains, 33 percent of children there still suffer from stunted growth as a result of malnutrition, and—according to the World Bank—15 percent of babies in Nigeria are born with low birth weight.
Almost half of Nigerian women between the ages of 15 and 49 have anaemia—a major cause of low birth weight—so Professor Nnam especially emphasises to new and expectant mothers that because the fetus saps the mother of iron, it’s important that they eat foods rich in iron.
Nigeria is a long way from completely eradicating malnourishment in all its various manifestations. But Ngozi has seen progress as a result of a effort between foreign aid organizations and the government to ensure that women are educated on the right types of nutrition—particularly in the rural north, where women often don’t have the freedom of choice or knowledge they need to make sure they and their babies are healthy.
Ngozi’s primary goal is to continually foster among mothers and young children the knowledge that “what you eat determines the kind of life you have.”
“It is a combined problem of poverty and not knowing about the right choices,” she says. “But if we can help them know, they can make more judicious use of what is available to them. This is why awareness is the first step towards tackling these problems.
She adds that sometimes, there are local, healthier options, “but some of these families prefer to eat foreign, over-processed foods in an effort to show that they are trying to belong—a status symbol.”
It’s interesting that the traditional idea of malnutrition—as a result of perhaps drought or flooding—is not always the case. Indeed, mothers in remote villages in northern Nigeria can be struggling with a version of the same problem that faces mothers in North America: how to feed her children nutritious food when faced with a deluge of cheap processed foods and a lack of information on what is best for her children. At the end of the day, knowledge is power.
As Ngozi puts it, “When people are empowered on how to make smart food choices, the rate of malnutrition will reduce.” And, as she has for the past 20 years, Ngozi aims to be a key to that empowerment for the mothers and babies of Nigeria.