Before 2014, Lydia John, then a 32-year old mother of six would fry yams, potatoes and akara, then sell to the people of Gwoza in Borno state who ate peacefully, wiped the oil off their mouths and came back for more.
A few months into 2014 however, she lost many of her customers then lost her means of livelihood altogether when the town lost its peace to the terror of Boko Haram.
After killing most of the men – her husband and a number of others escaped – the terrorists began to extort money from them every morning, taxing them for being alive to run their small businesses. One night, Lydia and several women picked up their children and fled the town, walking for miles with their hearts in their mouths and never stopping until they encountered some soldiers in a base at the foot of a mountain overlooking Yola. The soldiers then took them to a camp for Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in Cameroon where they stayed for months until the Borno state government sent trucks to bring them home.
“When they dropped us in the camp here, we were reunited with my husband”, says Lydia, who now has a seventh child born fourteen months ago in the camp, an uncompleted building donated by the Catholic Diocese of Maiduguri. “The children were so happy to see their father again.”
But despite its best efforts, the food given to the IDPs by the church was not enough to feed the multitude and it was here that Action Against Hunger (ACF International) stepped in to provide succour with its’ ‘Porridge Mom’ initiative. One of two being funded by a $4.6m grant from the USAID-backed Food for Peace (FFP) programme, it is a complementary feeding scheme for pregnant women, lactating mothers, children under the age of 5.
Every week, the ACF’s nutrition team designs a different recipe with nutritional requirements to address dietary needs of these categories; there are three varieties: Plantain Porridge, Yam Porridge and Tom Brown (made from soyabeans and millet). In all, there are 68 groups, each with 15 women and as many children each woman has that is under 5. In some locations, two groups of women cook – one set by day, the other by night. They are also allocated sitting mats, water reservoirs and eco-friendly stoves designed to use only small amounts of firewood.
Every week, the cardholder and secretary of the group, goes with the card to a cash vendor to get groceries and money for water and condiments. “The food goes a long way in helping us and our children”, says Lydia, secretary of her own group.
Her savings helped her start trading in charcoal but when her last baby fell ill, her monthly instincts overwhelmed the businesswoman in her and she spent all her proceeds on medicare.
‘Porridge Mom’ comes to an end this August but Lydia is undeterred. She may have lost her yams twice, but for her, while there is life, there is hope.
“It is our intention to continue and expand this approach, and the current learning exercise is ongoing”, says Theirry Laurent-Badin, director of programmes for ACF International in Nigeria. “But the project has been designed to transfer knowledge and understanding of the causes of undernutrition, and the actions the mothers or caretakers can take to prevent it – actions like regularly screening the child to preparing a local recipe for porridge. With this in mind, the mothers and women’s groups would be able to continue the provision of a meal and create this common space for mother and child, even without Action Against Hunger, and hopefully when they are moving back home.”