Health information adds to families’ wellbeing in Kenya

Published: 9 February 2015 20:54 CET

By Jenni Jeskanen, Finnish Red Cross Society

Consecutive pregnancies take a toll on a woman’s health, while men have trouble feeding their expanding families. Health awareness spread by the Red Cross helps families prepare for health risks in the villages of north Kenya.

Children have their differences.

That is something Saadia Malata, a 28 year old Kenyan mother of three, has come to realize. Her youngest, two-year-old Musa is remarkably healthier than his two older siblings who get sick easily.

Malata’s first children were born at home. When she was giving birth to her first child, as a 15-year-old teenager, she lost so much blood she nearly died. According to the local custom, Malata gave her babies salted water instead of breastfeeding them, and did not take them for a health check. “I didn’t know anything about hospitals or the antenatal clinic,” recalls Malata.

Breastfeeding reared a healthy toddler

When Musa came along, Malata did everything different. He was born in the village’s health centre and received tuberculosis, measles and polio vaccines. He was exclusively breastfed for six months, continuing irregularly beyond that age.

This change happened thanks to health information provided by a Kenya Red Cross Society volunteer. Janet Muama visits Malata and 19 other mothers once a month and talks about healthy nutrition, hygiene, the importance of breastfeeding and health clinic services, as well as the benefits of family planning.  

Muama is part of a three year joint health project between the Kenya Red Cross and the Finnish Red Cross which aims to prevent health risks for mothers and children in the impoverished area of North Tana. The region’s health situation is grim: as many as 88 children out of 1,000 die of malnutrition or disease before they turn five. Less than 10 per cent of women use contraceptives.

The Red Cross has trained 100 local volunteers as health and nutrition advisors, who visit villages and give advice to women and men on how to prepare for health risks. The project is funded by the European Union.

Old habits die hard

Volunteers need to be patient and persistent. Expecting mothers to adopt new habits takes time.  However, they are finding that disseminating health information has already started to bear fruit.

For example, the Bangale region health clinic handles an average of ten births per month, whereas a year earlier, almost all births took place at home. Every month, approximately 20 women come for a contraceptive injection - a noticeable increase from the handful of women who used to come. Nowadays, many women know that injections do not lead to infertility, a common misperception in the area.

At first, Saadia Malata’s husband threw away her contraceptive pills and was angry at her. “Not all men in our community agree with contraception. Therefore, some women take their injections secretly,” shares Malata.

Traditionally, a big family is seen as a blessing. Now, thanks to the health project, the focus is on healthy families, and Malata’s husband is slowly accepting the concept of family planning. “He understands that there is more room for children in a small family,” she says. Working irregular jobs, Malata’s husband does not have a steady income. Therefore, a small family is easier to feed.

Saadia has little money, but now she has knowledge, with which she can make better health choices for her entire family.