Mothers’ Welfare Group in Nigeria

Kaduna street scene (© Flickr) 

Eric Beauchemin meets Kathy Barrera whose organisation, the Mothers’ Welfare Group, has been working for the past 13 years in a poor, remote village near the central Nigerian city of Kaduna. She explains to Eric what she and her group are doing and what they have achieved.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: March 12, 2002


This is Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service. Welcome to a special edition of “A Good Life”. I’m Ginger da Silva. 

Now after 10 years in the villages, we see a lot of things have changed. I can see children that are happier. Their little brothers and sisters aren’t dying. They know things. This is very important in the village to know things, to be wise. And they didn’t have this opportunity before.

Kathy Barrera and her husband Jaime arrived in Nigeria a quarter of century ago. Kathy spent the first years helping poor people in urban areas. But for the past 13 years, she and her organisation, the Mothers Welfare Group, have been working in poor, remote villages around the central Nigerian city of Kaduna. Like so many other foreigners who have spent extended periods in Africa, Kathy is fulfilling a childhood dream. She still has a passion and love for her work that would make many people envious. But she and her team put in long hours, 7 days a week, almost every week, trying to help villagers help themselves. To an outsider, the changes they have brought about may appear relatively minor, but as she told Eric Beauchemin, to understand just how far these communities have come, you have to spend some time in rural villages, as she has.

Villages are not romantic settings. First of all, if you live there with the villagers in a bush hut, you’re on the ground. Half the year it’s wet, the other half of the year, it’s blowing dirt. You probably don’t have any trees or grasses around your house because you’re afraid of snakes and scorpions coming to bite you. Things fall out of the thatched grass roof that are all very bad for your health. You may or may not have enough food to eat during the year and certainly not enough nutrition, so that you are always suffering from the diseases that come with malnutrition. There isn’t that much to do. You don’t have electricity. You certainly don’t have television. You do have your family and games and songs and dancing and certain village activities but if you are so weak and tired from work, you don’t even enjoy that either. Children don’t have school to look to. You know, every child, no matter if they say, I hate school, I hate school, they look forward to going every morning, seeing their friends and having a good time, not going out and weeding the corn field. That’s pretty much what the village life is, aside from the fact that you have to eat a lot of tree leaves. That’s what they have to eat part of the year, tree leaves. Tree leaves, it’s awful. I can’t describe how bad it is. There just isn’t enough food during the dry season, so they grind up their grain into some kind of thick porridge and then they serve it with whatever they find hanging out of trees.

The poor food and hygiene, combined with illiteracy and desperate poverty were killing many people, particularly children.

When we first arrived at the project area, many of the children were dying of measles for no reason whatsoever because there was vaccine in town. It’s just that there were no social services of any sort in the area. There was a village called Khaim Kogi. The first year or so we went out to vaccinate. They had been begging us to come and vaccinate. So we went the next week and there were no children to vaccinate. They had all died. I’m not sure who they thought we were going to vaccinate. And we’ve made an effort since then to call them for vaccination and there haven’t been measles deaths since then.

Another disease that can be fatal in these villages – as in much of Africa – is malaria.

If you don’t understand how you get malaria, then you can’t avoid it and what you should do when the fever starts. If you wait too long, it can be what they call “it’s too late”. When we first came, many, many patients were brought to us and it was simply too late. Simple things like diarrhoea can kill in Africa, but if you know what to do with just sugar and salt and water, you can live. Of course, if you don’t know, you die. AIDS, many of the parasitic infections around, if you have the knowledge of what to do, there’s no reason you should die. 

The Mothers Welfare Group – which is an independent, Nigerian organisation with financial support from abroad – spent the first several months going  around to a number of villages with a mobile clinic, dispensing vaccinations and trying to save people’s lives. But it soon became clear that something more was needed. The villagers themselves asked for a school, but the Mother’s Welfare group knew that the traditional curriculum would not be relevant or interesting for the village children. They also believed that education could be used to help raise the community’s health standards.

During this time with the health, we hadn’t found a way to change the ideas or habits of the adults, and we felt we were getting nowhere on many of the issues. A curative sort of thing, the adults would come for, but something where it might take more than one day – for instance malnutrition or malarial prevention – they weren’t interested in that. And we discovered with the child-to-child programme that it was possible to change the minds of the children. They grow up with the idea so they always believe that and they go on with it. And they also have the possibility of saving their younger brothers’ and sisters’ lives because the parents feel that since they went to school, they learned this in school that this is probably OK. And the materials were interesting, the children came to school, they liked them, and we’re working at developing them. EB: What is child to child? To me it sounds like one child teaching another child. Is that it? It’s quite true. It’s an educational programme. It carefully integrates literacy with health. It’s an action thing, the children will be interested. Like for instance, one day you’ll start reading the book on dirty water and then you make a field trip to the dirty river and you see how water out of the pump – if they happen to have a pump, and if they don’t, it might be the catalyst to having a pump in the village, and then you might come back and look at it under a micro…well if you have a microscope or under a magnifying glass. The children draw pictures, they learn the words, and they’ll never forget that, what they learn that day. If they just read it out of a book or looked at it on the blackboard, they’ll probably forget what they learned. This way they learned what dirty water is. Dirty water can kill you. EB: What other types of health issues are you trying to raise? Generally the child-to-child programme goes along with the facts for life which is something developed by the World Health Organisation and it covers the common problems of the developing world: which is encouraging women to have antenatal care, to breastfeed at birth, better weaning foods, better food, monitoring the children so that you recognise before it’s a real problem when they are not well and they are not growing well. It covers malaria and water-borne diseases such as cholera. It covers AIDS and other problems that you might have with AIDS, other diseases that children and adults, particularly young children, 12 to 16 that girls are encountering. EB: You say that it’s a participatory approach, but for example HIV/AIDS, how do you bring that alive for children who are 6, 7, 8 years old? You don’t tell them. You ask them. So when you ask them, what do you know about this, what have you heard about that? Then by walking around the discussion with them, you can get them to understand the appropriate or the correct messages. In fact, in our part of Africa, the main problem is misconception. People have such strange ideas about you get HIV/AIDS, that that is the big problem, more so than the fact that they don’t know. What they do know is wrong.

They were singing in Hausa language. In the song they were saying that all children should come to school. They can see the doctors, the police, the armies, that everybody that is in any position has to come to school. So it is only a fool that will never like to come to school. So that’s what the song is saying.

I’ve come with Bulus Cheto, Kathy and several other staff members to a village about an hour’s drive from Kaduna, along a bumpy dirt road. The only building near the road is the village school.

Bulus uses flash cards to get the children to learn how to count.

It’s not chanting. We are afraid that if you are just writing it on the blackboard, the children doesn’t know it. He will just say it but he doesn’t know really what is the number. So by the flash card, by showing them each number, he will identify the difference between the number 1 and the number 10. He will identify between Z and A. It doesn’t have to be A, B, B, B. No, he really knows it and that’s all.

The cups are made with numbers, different numbers from 1 to 20. So if the children knows the number – it’s on the side of the cup – then he use that number and count exact number of stones into that cup. EB: And how many children are there in this class? There are more than 30 children. EB: And what is their age? It’s between 2 and 7 in this class. EB: So it’s a sort of pre-school, is that it, nursery school? Yes, a sort of pre-school. EB: Why is it important to have this? It’s a foundation. It’s just like playing but that stimulate them to be able to interact, to be able to know even between the simple colours, between the simple alphabet, between the simple counting. 

Generally the diet here, the main problem is called monotonous diet. They eat the same starch every day and they eat the same what they call soup – it’s just a bit of relish or something to the side which you dip your starch into. As they years have gone by, it’s been more and more difficult for them to grow certain kinds of food or have any kind of variety in their diet. So they eat literally the same thing all the time, day after day after day. So they eventually become deficient in some micronutrients and certainly in protein. An American cannot possibly imagine what they eat. It’s just…that would be beyond them. There’s no such thing as going to any supermarket. They are lucky if they have tomatoes and onions in their soup a few times a year. Onions they don’t grow as a whole. If they do, they sell them and eat the green part. Tomatoes are for selling. All the fruits are for selling, and a little bit of it they may eat. Many children have never had any kind of – other than bush meat – what you would think of as something to eat, they have never had till they’re 10 or 11 and can get their share. EB: Why do the farmers need to sell all these things? Why do they need the cash? They have no income to cover things like school fees – if they’re sending anyone to school – or for medical reasons, for weddings, for funerals. Now with the AIDS problem, a lot of money will be spent on medicines and funerals. Transport into town. There’s many different reasons which you and I don’t think about. We think that’s the normal thing we spend our money, but for them, to come up with the money just to go to town to buy a bottle of medicine, it’s a big deal. They have to think all week how they are going to find that cash.  EB: Before the new planting season, at the end of the year, what do people have in stock? What do they have? They don’t. They start buying grain again. They don’t. So whatever available income they have, it buys half of what they should probably eat at a price that is three times what they sold it for. The worst time is in the middle of the rainy season when they’re growing crops. They’re not yet ripe and there’s nothing to eat and the price of the grain is very high. So children generally develop very serious malnutrition problems during this period.

Kobo Bako sits in a circle with the pre-school children. In the middle of the circle are various different foods. He’s turned the explanation of proteins, carbohydrates and fats into a show, and the kids are engrossed.

You know, here, they don’t know what is good food. They don’t know at their age they need proteineous foods, they need carbohydrates, they need different types of food every day. So by putting all the fruit and the food together, and you know, children participating with the teacher, that help them to know and try to eat because, like even bananas, some of them has never eaten before. All what the parents do is after they get it, they go to the market and sell it to make money. So with this, with the children participating it, seeing it, tasting it, they will know how good it is and when they grow they will be using it. And even if they go to the house, and the father wants to sell it, they will say, no Father, this is good for our body. We should be using it. 

At the same time as the Mothers Welfare Group uses the child-to-child or CTC method to teach children about the value of good nutrition, it’s also trying to help their parents improve crop yields. 

Actually there’s been a lot of work done, incredible, wonderful work with the International Tropical Institute here in Nigeria and other places in the world, and they’ve come up with very good ideas that will solve a lot of the problems of the farmers. The problem has been, is to get it from the research institute to the farmers, and this has not happened very well. Now I am fortunate that we’ve made a connection with this institute, and they are sending out people to us and training people actually in the field – even if it’s a small group – and we hope that within the next three years they will take up all the new ideas. And it seems that way because they now all want to run down to a nearby farm that’s a demonstration farm to look at it. In that way, we should be able to improve nutrition by ensuring that they can grow more food.

A few kilometres further down the road, people from another village are helping to build a school for their children. The school looks simple: two unfinished airy brick huts, but the parents mill around with a certain pride in what they have managed to accomplish. The smaller children sit on mats, while in the other hut, the older children have desks and chairs.

EB: Kathy, he was unable to explain in English what he had read, but he could explain it in Hausa. Is that the level you are trying to achieve? Up to age 10, yes, because it’s a third language and it’s extremely for them. In the village, there are two really important things they have to learn. One is agriculture: better agriculture to survive and some kind of life skills to make some money. The other is health: messages that will help them to stay healthy rather than looking for medicine. So if we get as far as we can with a village child that they can understand the health messages, read them in English, and understand for themselves how to use it, that’s enough for right now. EB: How do these pupils compare to children in a government school? The problem you find here is that in government school the teacher has no time really to concentrate on his children. All what he does is write it down on the blackboard. The children are not participating. It’s one-way message. But here the children participate from the beginning, from the nursery school, to the next class, to the next class. So you find that the children knows it. They don’t chant but they knows it. So the difference is clear. You find in the government school, the boy may be reading A, B, C, D, but he doesn’t really know what is the A, B, C, D. But in our schools, since the boy is participating, you find that he knows it, and the quality, the standard is different. In our group, in let’s say group 4 compared with Primary 6, you find that in our group 4 can read more than the government school in Primary 6. EB: Are you a strong supporter of CTC? Yes, yes, yes. Especially in Africa, I think the only way out is the CTC because it allows children to participate. It goes along with messages that we need, especially on health. Simple messages like fever, like cough, like accidents, home accidents, like snake bites, like fractures, you know, all these messages are messages that you need to know. Sometimes you find that a lot of people die just because of diarrhoea. But if they have known from the beginning that they are able to take ORS – Oral Rehydration Therapy – that will stop the diarrhoea, they will not die.

It’s more important for them when they’re in school to learn the health messages, learn how to grow more food and better food, learn how to process food and make an income from where they are in the village setting, learn how to have different activities which interest them. For example, embroidery and knitting has been very popular and it gives them something else to do in life. It’s not ugly. It’s something pretty and there often isn’t anything pretty. It builds up the girls’ and women’s self-esteem and even the boys. If they can make a bench or table or a chair, rather than sitting in the dirt, it’s a big change on their lives and that’s what we’re working on.

EB: What’s your name? My name is Tom Owola. EB: OK, and Tom how old are you? I’m 10 years old. EB: When did you start going to school? 5. EB: When you were five. Have your parents been to school? No. EB: They don’t know how to read and write? Yes. EB: They don’t know. Yes. EB: Are your brothers and sisters going to school too? Yes. EB: Do you like school? Yes. EB: What do you like about school? I learn how to write and how to read. EB: Why do you like that? Because I want to be a doctor. EB: You want to be a doctor? Yes. EB: Why do you want to be a doctor? I want to save many people.

Many of the other children in the class also aspire to become doctors or nurses to help save their people. But higher education is fraught with dangers for children like Tom because it requires that they leave their village.

Well, if you go to town, you will probably get in trouble if you are from a remote area. The girls that go to secondary school in town unfortunately usually turn to prostitution and get all number of things they don’t want. The boys in seeing that others in town have things and they want to have them may become thieves or become discouraged and smoke drugs. It’s just not a good life for them. They’re not coming to town to enjoy the electric light and the running water because they’re not going to be in that part of town society. They’re going to be at the bottom. And they will be cheated by the others in town because it’s so easy to do. In your own village you don’t cheat your neighbour because you can’t. But in town you don’t know and it’s very easy to be cheated. It’s not a happy life. In the village, you have your family surrounding you, you have your neighbours, you have your church or your mosque. You have all the activities during the year to look forward to. But in the town you can be cut off from this very much so and be living among people that don’t understand you, don’t know you. You may not be invited to anything. You may feel out of place in the church activities or the Islamic women’s society. You just won’t feel part of it. EB: Is this what your success stories aspire to, to actually go back to the village and improve the status of their fellow villagers? I don’t think anyone goes back. Once they get to town, it’s very hard to go back. We have really tried to keep the children going to secondary school as close to the village as possible. In fact, they aren’t really in town. And if they do go away to a teacher training college we will remind them why they’re there. But by then, they’re probably committed enough to come back. Very few people who have been trained traditionally from the village ever come back to do anything. They develop an attitude that I have gotten away, I have escaped.

One of the village women who went away to study and then came back is Julie. She’s 22.

School is very fine because you can learn how to read and write and know what you plan for your future. EB: What are you doing now? Now, I’m dealing with womens, teaching them how to sew, how to knit, and teach them how to make a baby’s ?? for their children. EB: If you had not gone to school, what would your life be like now, do you think? I would not be able to do all those things. EB: You would just be a farmer? Yes. EB: Are you proud of having gone to school? Yes. EB: Would you like to continue your education? I want to continue my education. EB: To do what? I want to be a village health worker. EB: A village health worker. Why? Do you think it’s important here? Yes, it’s important because I can help our people who are dying without knowing what they are doing.

Julie got married before she could complete secondary school, but she’d still like to graduate. Most other people in this village have not had as much schooling as Julie, but even with only a few years of education, says Kathy, people can help make a big difference in a village like this one.

Well, for instance we had an adolescent girls group and one of the girls continued with us afterwards. She became a nursery school teacher. Now this is someone who didn’t even finish Class 6, but along the way, she learned enough that she can teach A, B, C, 1, 2, 3. She can teach children how to lace and stack and all the little things you want nursery school children to do. And then she had some available income from her nursery school teaching. From that she learned from the group how to sew. And she took a loan and she got a sewing machine and then from the money from the sewing machine, she took another small loan and got a grinder, so she has an income from that and now she wants to fix her house nicely so she doesn’t have to live like the other ladies. So she’ll have a table and chairs and dishes to eat on, proper dishes, and she also likes to talk to other people about what she’s doing. She’s taught all the women, even the old women, in her village to read. I didn’t know she could read in Hausa until this happened. Other people in the group: there are a group of teenagers that were with us from the very beginning and we’re putting them through secondary school. And some of them are already committed to working in the group and going back to their villages. In fact they already go back and help us. They’ll be helpers at a day camp for children or if we’re doing vaccinating, they might come and get everybody lined up and make sure the cards are filled in correctly. EB: Where does you project go from here? The project is being run more and more ever day by the villagers. We didn’t bring in a lot of people from outside to teach them. In fact, nearly everyone we’re working with comes from their own village. And the idea is that they will take the knowledge that we’ve given them and they’ll take over the programme and we’ll move on to another place which is already happening. In two or three locations, we do very little now and we’ve moved on to more remote sites. EB: So there are always more remote sites, aren’t there? Unfortunately so. You can just keep going until there’s no more road and then no more bicycle and then you’re on foot. There’s a lot of area. Nigeria is a very big country. There’s a lot of space where no one reaches, even more remote than the area I’m in now.

The success stories may appear relatively minor. There’s still no electricity or running water in these villages. Families still have to struggle to feed themselves, and poverty is almost as great as when the Mothers Welfare Group first started. But Kathy Barrera has learned during her years in this remote part of Africa’s most populous country that success needs to be measured in different terms.

I think to make any change here takes a long time and you have to be patient and you have to be happy with small successes and you can’t expect to change the whole country overnight which is unfortunately the plan of a lot of NGOs. It’s just not going to happen. Now after 10 years in the villages we see a lot of things have changed in our own mind. An outsider might not see that. I can see children that are happier. Their little brothers and sisters aren’t dying. They know things. This is very important in the village to know things, to be wise. All of the women in the group will tell you at some point I wanted to be wise. It’s a very, very important cultural thing here. Just to know how to do anything makes you wiser. And they didn’t have this opportunity before. And that’s where I feel the success. And I see the group of young men and women that are building schools, building better homes, building wells, working 7 days a week and there is certainly no compensation for that and I guess that was the best thing I could have done.

Kathy Barrera, the director of the Mothers Welfare Group, bringing an end to this special edition of A Good Life, presented by Eric Beauchemin. I’m Ginger da Silva. Till next week, stay well