Summary: Glory Mhalu is an iAGRI-sponsored food science and human nutrition student at Michigan State University. Glory’s master’s research investigates the effectiveness of utilizing orange-fleshed sweet potatoes to enrich porridge with vitamin A, in hopes of ultimately reducing vitamin A deficiency in Tanzanian children between the ages of 6 to 12 months-old. Vitamin A deficiency is form of malnourishment and can lead to a variety of diseases as well as inhibit healthy human growth and development. The high beta carotene content, which is converted to vitamin A when consumed, in orange-fleshed sweet potatoes make it an ideal nutrition supplement. Glory implemented a nutrition intervention program that educates rural Tanzanian mothers about how to grow, harvest, dry and mill sweet potatoes into the flour that can supplement the traditional maize-based porridge, also know as uji, which is commonly fed to young children in rural Tanzania. Glory conducts her research in Rudewa, a small village in Tanzania’s kilosa district. Aside from teaching women how to make vitamin A-enriched porridge and administering regular feedings, Glory will track the participants physical growth, as well as conduct blood analysis in order to determine what cumulative effect her porridge recipe has had on increasing vitamin A levels of the participating children. Glory expects to graduate with her master’s degree from Michigan State in 2014.
Sponsor: iAGRI is funded by USAID within its Feed the Future initiative and implemented by the Ohio State University Consortium (Ohio State University – lead institution, Iowa State University, Michigan State University, Tuskegee University, University of Florida, and Virginia Tech). Primary institutional stakeholders in Tanzania are Sokoine University of Agriculture and the Tanzanian Ministry of Agriculture, Food Security, and Cooperatives.
A Recipe for Enrichment: Using sweet potatoes and vitamin A-enhanced porridge to fight malnourishment in Tanzania
Glory Mhalu loves children, and it shows in every one of her actions on a bright Saturday morning at the primary school in Rudewa, a village in Tanzania’s Kilosa district. It’s in her smile as she leans in and greets the children, their heads and curious eyes peaking from the colorful fabric kangas that strap them to their mothers’ backs. It’s in the way that she warmly takes the babies into her arms and holds them as if they were her own, and it’s in every cup of frothy beige, vitamin A-enriched porridge that she pours.
Glory, a 28-year-old iAGRI-sponsored master’s student at Michigan State University, has spent the last year and a half researching how to make all of Tanzania’s babies healthier. She’s channeled her love for children into her academics and the culmination of that effort is a nutrition intervention that she’s initiating on this particular early March morning at Rudewa’s Mbuyuni Primary School.
“I love babies, and I love to work with mothers,” says Glory, amidst a bustling classroom where mothers are feeding enriched porridge to their children. “Deficiency in vitamin A is a big problem in Africa. I thought that if we can incorporate vitamin A into something children already eat, then we could solve that problem.”
Twenty-five mothers have brought their children to Mbuyuni Primary School in hopes of improving their babies’ health and nutrition. Half of them have journeyed from distant villages, and have walked, peddled, or taken motorcycle taxis along the muddy, pot-holed roads to reach to the school.
Mbuyuni is a typical Tanzanian village school, with four long narrow classroom blocks in the shape of a U enclosing a hard-packed soil courtyard. Planters with vibrant red, yellow, and pink flowers form narrow buffers between the expanse of the courtyard and the faded blue and white painted exterior of the classrooms. Educational paintings on the walls depict basic lessons in human anatomy, botany, and geography. Instead of these traditional subjects, however, today’s lesson is about nutrition.
Glory’s nutrition intervention aims to increase vitamin A levels in babies. She’ll be teaching mothers how to dry and process orange-fleshed sweet potatoes in order to enhance the nutritional value of uji, a cornmeal-based porridge relied upon by many rural Tanzanian women to feed young children. Glory hopes to prove that supplementing uji with beta carotene-rich sweet potatoes can raise levels of vitamin A and reduce common childhood diseases, night blindness and general malnutrition that remains prevalent throughout rural Tanzania and East Africa.
If Glory appears completely at ease managing a room packed with mothers and their crying babies it’s because she spent years witnessing her mother instructing similar health and nutrition lessons as a child growing up in Arusha, in northern Tanzania.
“My mother taught home economics and human nutrition in secondary school and technical college,” says Glory. “My passion and the reason I love nutrition and home economics is from my Mom. I grew up watching her teaching other women and doing a lot of other things and I thought, this is cool, I think I’d like to do that.”
Glory vividly remembers her mother teaching at the Lutheran church that her family attended.
“My Mom had a group of young mothers that would come to church once a week,” recalls Glory. “She would teach them how to cook, how to sew, how to clean houses and things like that, and I found it all very interesting. I was still very young when I saw her doing this but I loved it.”
What Glory’s mother lacked was a college education, something that made as much of an impression on Glory as did the content of her lessons and instruction.
“I saw what my Mom was doing without a college degree, and that inspired me to do more,” claims Glory. “I thought that if my Mom can do this without an education, imagine what I could do if I got one. She was able to reach a small group of women, but if I got a degree, I could potentially reach thousands.”
With encouragement from both her mother and her father, who worked as a technician for the Tanzanian electrical company, Glory remained in school and excelled in science, particularly biology, and home economics. Glory received additional encouragement to study food science and human nutrition from one particular secondary school instructor.
“In secondary school I had an inspirational home economics and human nutrition teacher,” recalls Glory. “She loved teaching young women. Every day she would come into class and say ‘girls, you can do anything you want to do that you set your mind to.’ I had two older friends that took this class and they became the first women from my school to get into Sokoine University. That inspired me, my teacher inspired me and considering my background in the subject growing up, I knew that I loved these subjects and that I needed to pursue them further. I kept going with nutrition through secondary school, then my undergraduate, now my master’s and maybe I’ll do that for a Ph.D. too,” says Glory, laughing through a wide enthusiastic smile.
After earning her bachelors at Sokoine University of Agriculture in 2009, Glory immediately took a position as a tutor of food science and human nutrition at the Uyole Agricultural Institute in Mbeya. In addition to teaching basic nutrition, she evaluated the health of many rural communities, an experience that inspired her master’s focus at Michigan State.
“Having an opportunity to work with families during that job, that is when I got my idea for my uji recipe,” says Glory. “In those villages, I saw that 6-12 month-old babies can’t eat ugali, they can’t eat beans, and their young mothers don’t know what to do. They don’t know how they can feed them. I thought that if we could just teach them to use what they have and incorporate something healthier into what they already know how to prepare, then we could probably improve the health of their children.”
Upon acceptance to iAGRI and Michigan State University in 2012, Glory packed her bags and her thesis idea and headed to Flint, Michigan – her first trip to the United States. Leaving friends, family and the familiarity of home behind was nothing new. In her teens she voluntarily left Arusha to attend a boarding school in Dar es Salaam. However, Glory found that moving to another country comes with its own challenges.
“The culture is different, the learning environment is different, the technology is different,” recalls Glory of her initial impressions. “I had to make a lot of adjustments. I especially had to adjust the way that I managed my time. People there are always punctual and you have to be too.”
Even things that are common to both Tanzania and the United States, such as city bus transportation, were daunting at first.
“The first time I tried to board the bus in Michigan, I was holding ice cream and the conductor said I couldn’t enter with food,” explains Glory. The second time, I was asked to swipe a student ID and I didn’t know how. In Tanzania you pay for everything with cash. I didn’t know what to do. Then, you have to pull a cable when you reach your stop. I thought that was amazing. Here in Tanzania, we have a conductor in the bus and you tell the conductor where you’ll stop, he pounds on the side of the bus, it stops and you get out.”
Glory was thankful when she found that the Lutheran church was similar to her church in Tanzania. Every Sunday became a little slice of home, some familiar comfort that she could look forward to each week.
“I attended the Lutheran Church at Michigan State,” says Glory. “It was so similar to back home. I recognized songs, and sometimes I could even sing along to them in Swahili. It was one of the most beautiful things because I felt at home and I looked forward to going every Sunday. I grew up in church, my mother is a church lady, and to find one so similar to back home was so nice.”
While settling into her new environment, Glory began the academic portion of her master’s curriculum under the advisement of David Duriancic, a professor of food science and human nutrition who she affectionately refers to as her “super supervisor.”
“I’m really thankful of Dr. Duriancic,” recalls Glory fondly. “He was wonderful. He helped me adjust. I was there on my own and I had so much to learn. First, he raised my confidence level. He said ‘Glory, you’re here already, so you can do this.’ Sometimes he would meet me on the weekend to make sure that I had my presentations for other classes well-prepared. I call him my super supervisor because he did such a great job. He was my friend and my supervisor, someone who helped me so much when I was in the US.”
Glory singles out one lesson from Dr. Duriancic that was of particular importance to her academic and personal development.
“Dr. Duriancic helped me a lot when it comes to hard work. He taught me how to work hard but efficiently. Just working with him, he helped me get more organized in my work and what I do. He taught me to never mix the personal with the professional. When it is time to work, work, when it is time to party, then you party. That helps you focus. I’ve even put ‘personal and professional’ on a small sign in my room to remind me of that lesson,” says Glory laughing.
As her studies progressed, Glory refined her rough research idea until she was confident she could implement it back home. Glory’s local academic advisor, Sokoine University Food Scientist Dr. Joyce Kinabo, helped her acquire the final academic and personal tools she needed to carry out her research.
“Dr. Kinabo is an inspiration to me,” says Glory. “First of all, she is a woman and a distinguished professor. I feel like she is my mentor. I love the way she works because she knows what to do to get the results she wants. I call her Superwoman. It has been so important to me to have an advisor who is both a woman and professor. To watch how she works has been inspirational.”
All of Glory’s efforts have resulted in a school room full of mothers, babies and a steaming kettle of vitamin A enriched uji. Today is one of the first in her month-long experiment, and the focus is on teaching mothers to prepare the uji and feed it to their babies. The mothers are scattered all about the room, some sitting at desks and some on the floor with their backs against the wall. As the mothers try with mixed success to get the uji past their babies’ lips, Glory works her way through the room offering smiles and encouragement.
Glory will return to the village and supervise several more feedings. After a month, she’ll measure the vitamin A levels in the children’s blood and record their height and weight. That data will allow Glory to conclude whether or not the vitamin A fortified uji has been effective in raising their vitamin A levels. For now, the babies are happy and fed, some crawling on the floor and playing as the mothers finish eating the excess porridge. Glory is beaming as she thanks the mothers for their support and gives them instructions on when the next feeding and teaching session will be. This day has gone splendidly, and she’s optimistic about the course of her research and where it might ultimately lead.
“The great thing is that this is sustainable,” says Glory. “We teach the women how to dry the sweet potatoes and make them into flour. We teach them how to mix the flour into the uji and cook it. If we supply them with tubers, then they can plant, harvest, and feed the babies all on their own. I know that a lot of factors play into Vitamin A deficiency, but if we can get them to do this tiny thing, then maybe we can get them to do something else. Maybe in 10 to 20 years, vitamin A deficiency in sub-Saharan Africa can be erased. We don’t have to have this problem with all the food resources we have.”
There’s a lot of research left to be done, but thanks to the skills she’s taken from her iAGRI experience, her education at Michigan State and the mentorship she’s received from her advisors, Glory is fully confident in her ability to meet the challenge ahead.
“I am more focused, determined and challenged than I was two years ago. Living in the US challenged me. I saw that there are a lot of different things that we don’t have here. You see, it is not about having money. Look at the women and children. We have a lot of diseases and malnutrition. In the US, I never met a malnourished kid. For me, it presented a challenge. Can we get there too? Can Tanzanian mothers be secure that their babies are healthy and will grow up to be normal children? Can I have that for my African mothers? That has been my motivation, to get there, to put a smile on these mothers’ faces because they know that their child will not be vulnerable to disease. After 50 years, can we stand back and see how far we’ve come? Can we complete that journey?”
It’s the early afternoon when the mothers, their babies full of uji and safely cocooned in kangas, exit the dim classroom into a brilliant day. Those who walked begin their treks home while those that rode bikes retrieve them from the walls they were leaning on or disengage their kickstands in preparation for departure. Glory is darting between mothers, imparting final instructions, saying goodbyes and kissing babies. A few moments later she watches in satisfaction as the last of the women ride off along the dirt road through the village, then disperse one by one along the paths that will take them home.
If you would like additional information on Glory Mhalu’s research or the opportunity to sponsor her research further, please contact us.
All images and story by iAGRI photographer and writer Tyler Jones.