In the last couple of weeks, we have continued to work with the women’s groups in the villages of Mamu and Tole to focus on improving nutrition, and indirectly, health and quality of life. After the initial training workshop, we wanted to follow up with a practical component to help the ideas of a balanced diet translate from theoretical knowledge into effective change. In both villages, we held a cooking demonstration to practice adding protein and vegetables to common recipes used, and to introduce new cooking techniques that retain the nutritional value of the ingredients.
At the cooking demonstration, the women divided into groups and cooked two or three of their traditional dishes, using the conventional techniques commonly used to prepare them. While they were cooking, FORUDEF staff observed. This was in part to promote cultural exchange, as the women were very proud to teach us about their food customs, and in part to understand which methods of preparing and cooking food were beneficial or harmful to preserving their nutrients. FORUDEF staff then prepared three dishes that were examples of a balanced meal, while the women watched and asked questions. Because we are obviously not very well versed in the art of fine Cameroonian cooking, our co-workers carried out this phase of the nutrition program, and we did our best as sous-chefs.
We had noticed that in this area of Cameroon, vegetables of every kind are boiled, without exception. Further, vegetables are not boiled for five minutes or ten, but for upwards of 30 minutes. During the cooking demonstration, we saw every group in both villages do this. When we talked about the importance of eating green vegetables in the training workshop, the women claimed that they did regularly. The problem, however, seems to be that by the time these vegetables are eaten, there is not much nutritional content left. We watched as green vegetables similar to spinach and bok choy were boiled for 30 or 40 minutes, squeezed of their remaining water content (and much of the remaining nutrients), and then put aside in a pot while the water was disposed of. Additionally, the idea of eating raw vegetables is absolutely foreign to most villagers we have worked with. They know what a salad is, but as it is not a dish originating in Cameroon, no one seems to eat them or to have any interest in raw vegetables. As a result, a lot of the nutrients that can be obtained from eating raw vegetables are unutilized in these villages, and are instead lost in over-boiling.
With this in mind, FORUDEF prepared a green vegetable dish commonly eaten called njama njama, and a salad comprised of nothing more than an assortment of fresh, raw, vegetables. As the women watched, they were very skeptical to see us only steam the vegetables for the njama njama for a couple minutes. In the same way, they could not believe that the same vegetables they only ate very, very cooked were now being prepared raw for the salad. Many of the participants had never tried uncooked tomato or carrot. To them, it must have been similar to someone preparing a raw potato dish and insisting that it is not only good for us, but that it will also taste good. Although they were keen to learn, their enthusiasm for later eating the food we were making appeared diminished.
Another nutritional problem common in villages is a lack of protein. During the training workshops, the women talked about the expense of fish and meat as sources of protein, as well as the cultural dynamics of these delicacies. Traditionally, if meat or fish can be afforded, the largest portion will be served to the male member of the family. This compounds the problem of a short supply of protein for other family members, especially children. As a way to increase protein consumption without disturbing established cultural norms, FORUDEF has emphasized groundnuts and beans in its nutrition program. At the cooking demonstration, we prepared a groundnut stew with green vegetables. Groundnut stew is a familiar dish already, but is not usually served with green vegetables added. Because this dish was more recognizable, the women were most optimistic about this option for encouraging a balanced diet in their homes.
Once the cooking was finished, all participants ate together. This time was also used to review the nutritional properties of each dish, and emphasize certain points, such as the importance of adding raw vegetables to their diet regularly. We were impressed to see how much the women remembered from the training workshop. One group even provided bananas for after the meal to ensure that we got our fruit consumption for the day. While they admitted they thought the njama njama tasted ‘half-cooked’, they also told us they liked it, and would practice steaming vegetables instead of boiling and squeezing them in the future. Given that this is the way it’s always been done, we don’t expect this approach to cooking to change right away. We do hope, though, that as a group, they will remind and encourage each other to retain the nutrients in the foods the cook, and with continued involvement from FORUDEF, will modify their customary way of cooking vegetables. The salad received high praise; most women were surprised that carrot and onion could be palatable in their raw form. However, when we returned to Tole village a few weeks later to monitor their meal plans and check in, we found that none of the women had yet made a salad for their families, and many were still unsure about raw vegetables, in spite of liking the salad (or at least, telling us that they liked it). In the same way, we hope that with time and encouragement, salads will become a more common part of their regular diets. For our part, we got to try a number of new Cameroonian foods…and survived. Just kidding- some were better than others, such as the palm nut soup, and either way, it was a good experience.
The next phase of the nutrition program will focus on growing groundnuts or beans. We want to encourage increased protein consumption not just in word but also in action. Each participating CIG will choose to grow groundnuts or beans, and will select land to cultivate them. Through a seed bank, FORUDEF will loan the seeds to the CIG and will help to plant them and provide growing advice. When the crops are harvested later in the fall, the ‘seed loan’ will be returned to FORUDEF with a small amount of ‘seed interest’, so that they can be then loaned again to other groups. This will formally conclude the nutrition program, although FORUDEF plans to continue monitoring their nutritional habits and working with the women to keep moving forward towards good eating and good health.
We have learned a lot while working on the nutrition program, both about community development and nutrition, and we believe the participants have as well. If the rest of the program continues well, FORUDEF will bring it to villages in the Akwaya sub-division once the rainy season finishes, as these more isolated communities are where malnutrition is most pronounced. Amongst many other things, this program has helped to reinforce the belief that the active involvement of program participants is essential for a program to be effective. More important than just mirroring what we teach is for community members to take ownership of health in their families and communities. We hope that for these reasons, Akwaya in time will also experience better nutrition, and better health.