Malawi and U study nutrition

by Jake Kapsner

A team of African and University officials hope to expand a 1992 program responsible for halving the infant mortality rates in a pair of African villages.
“The project has been so successful that neighboring villages have asked to have the same,” said Dr. Richard Phoya, who heads the animal science department at the University of Malawi’s Bunda College of Agriculture.
Driven with the purpose of linking American colleges with those in developing countries, the University project seeks sustained solutions to the problems of child malnourishment by incorporating goat milk into the diets of subsistent families.
The University teamed with university officials from Lilongwe, Malawi and Lincoln, Mo. in 1992 as part of a University Development Linkage Project sponsored by the United States Agency for International Aid.
The Republic of Malawi’s ambassador to the United States, Willie Chokani, joined Phoya and University officials this week on campus. They discussed ways to improve child nutrition and education and the University’s future involvement with the democratic southern African nation.
Malawi has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world — one in five — and it’s largely because of malnourishment, said Dr. Sonia Patten, an anthropologist in the Department of Family Practice and Community Health.
Patten is one of a handful of University faculty working with Bunda College to decrease infant mortality rates by decreasing malnourishment in the impoverished country.
She said the program works. The collaboration has had positive feedback from the rural women the project aims to help, Patten said. With goat milk helping significantly to supplement the protein needs of their children, the Malawian mothers suggested also supplementing their dietary needs with other protein sources like soy-based milk, she said.
About 70 percent of the 11.5 million inhabitants of Malawi, which is roughly the size of Pennsylvania, live an agricultural existence, Phoya said.
The collaboration hopes to continue the project, which will end in September, and looks to extend to other southern African countries like Zambia and Zimbabwe, which face the same child health problems, Patten said.
Malawi has been independent of British colonial rule since 1964. In 1994, the political system changed from dictatorship into a multi-party democratic system.
University faculty have offered their knowledge of health, agricultural and administrative systems in exchange for a better understanding of the small African nation and the issues its people face.
Another purpose of the trip is to meet with University officials for input on how the government of Malawi can better structure a new university in the northern Malawi city of Mzuzu.
During their extensive tour, Chokani and Phoya met with University President Mark Yudof and sampled departments in agriculture, nutrition and community health.
Wednesday, the delegation meandered through a garden in North Minneapolis — part of the University’s Extension service and an example of the land grant philosophy.
The University of Malawi has an extension program of their own: the goat program operates out of the Bunda College of Agriculture in the capital city, Lilongwe, and residents in two participating villages raise the animals.
The country also seeks support after creating a system of free primary education in 1994. Enrollment figures jumped by two million students the next year — from 1.2 to 3.2 million students.
The elimination of tuition fees led to shortages of space, teaching materials and the teachers themselves. Poor families who had no means to pay for education now scamper to enroll their children, Patten explained.
Coupled with a population increase that went from 9.5 million to 11.5 million in the past two years, educational supports have become increasingly scarce.
Chokani said another aspect of his visit is to seek the University’s help in raising financial assistance from international donor groups like USAID, World Bank or the African Development Bank.
In 1996, donors reportedly pledged $332 million in aid to Malawi, one of the world’s least developed countries.
And this year the international community stepped up efforts to help improve health and education in Malawi.
The World Bank approved a $48 million credit in March called the Malawi Secondary Education Project to accommodate the massive influx of students and provide training for school administrators to support classroom teachers.
President Bill Clinton also pledged $60 million in food security funding for Mali, Malawi, Uganda and Ethiopia during his March tour of the African continent.
Chokani described the highlight of his visit not so much in terms of finance or structure, but in human warmth.
“I have gauged the enthusiasm of the people and their abandon to good will,” Chokani said. “It’s this immense good will we’ve found, and we can’t go wrong.”