Summary: Neema Shosho is an iAGRI-sponsored master’s scholar in Food and Nutritional Sciences from Tuskegee University. A volunteer experience that Neema had as a teenager exposed her to the realities of food scarcity and malnutrition in her native Tanzania. Since then, she’s dedicated her academic and professional career to helping reduce food insecurity and the instance of malnutrition. In 2013, Neema returned home to Tanzania to implement her master’s research, which investigates the effectiveness of an alternative education regime in providing mothers in rural areas with the knowledge they need to administer nutritious complementary feeding practices to their young babies.
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.
Not Your Ordinary Song and Dance: Teaching complementary feeding practices through alternative Education
By half past 2 p.m., iAGRI-sponsored scholar Neema Shosho had perfected her check-in routine. As Neema recorded the previous child’s blood test results, her research assistant weighed the next child in line, a young child named Swaumu. They hoisted Swaumu, kicking and squirming, onto a measurement board, where they attempted to accurately read her height. Finally, Neema took a blood sample from her finger, placed the sample into a red handheld device called a Hemocue, and waited for the result. By this point, all but the most stoic children were in hysterics, and Neema’s soothing repetition of “Oh, you poor thing,” and “poor baby,” was little comfort. As soon as the Hemocue displayed the result, she’d record it and the cycle began anew.
Already more mothers than Neema expected were present, and they continued to arrive at Peapea’s local government offices by foot and bicycle in a steady stream. Mothers who had completed check-in sat upon a tarp made from empty Simba brand cement bags that had been stitched together and spread out in the shade of a tree. The children, all aged 6- to 24-months, forgot the trauma of check-in the moment they were let loose to play.
A group of nine men waited beneath a tree nearby. They were dressed casually, more than half in bold red and blue Premier League football jerseys with global brands emblazoned upon their chest. Like most of the other men present, they wore jeans or slacks and neon-colored rubber flip-flops. However these men also wore intricately patterned vitenge tied around one shoulder and empty battered cans of insect repellent fastened to their legs, which would clang together to act as home-made bells.
After the last mother and child pair was seated, the men stomped, leaped, and danced onto a dirt stage. Their leader began a call-and-response chant with lyrics in Swahili about nutrition and complementary feeding. The eight other dancers responded in unison and danced in a choreographed swirl of color set to the rhythmic beats of their stomping. Mothers and children sat in silence, wide-eyed and smiling, fixated on the spectacle before them.
By the day’s end, more than 40 mother and child pairs learned about complementary feeding practices and basic child nutrition through lecture, performance, and a cooking demonstration. It was the first session of the nutrition intervention experiment Neema is conducting for her master’s research. Over the next month, the food and nutritional sciences student from Tuskegee University will test the effectiveness of a nutritionally-balanced porridge recipe and other locally available foods, as well as alternative methods of education to teach mothers of the importance of complementary feeding practices in maintaining the World Health Organization’s (WHO) children’s nutritional requirements.
For Neema, the event culminated a decade of education and work that had been initiated by a single experience, one which rerouted her academic ambitions and sparked her interest in human nutrition.
One of five siblings growing up in Dodoma, Neema was raised in a middle class Tanzanian household. Her mother was a pediatric nurse and her father was a human resource manager. Though farming was not necessary for the family’s subsistence needs, Neema and her siblings were no strangers to farming and agriculture.
“We had a small farm,” recalls Neema. “We kept cows and goats and we even had milk from our own cows. I’d come home from school and then have to water vegetables, feed the cows, and things like that. I think it helped teach me to multi-task because it taught me that I could attend school and still accomplish other things.”
Neema succeeded in school at a young age. Both of her parents encouraged her to do well, but it was her mother’s work ethic and ambition to advance her own career that inspired Neema the most.
“My Mom is a fighter,” says Neema. “When I was young she was a nurse but was only semi-educated. She worked very hard to go back to school and she eventually became the district coordinator for young infants and mothers.”
Neema excelled in math and science through primary and secondary school, but she wasn’t sure what career she wanted.
“I knew I liked science, but I didn’t know that becoming a food scientist or nutritionist was what I wanted to do,” recalls Neema.
A volunteer experience during high school with World Vision, an international NGO operating in Tanzania, revealed a side of Tanzania and the developing world that was previously unknown to Neema.
“I helped them to do monitoring and evaluation on a project that addressed food security by providing food to individual households,” says Neema. “That’s where I first saw malnourished children. I discovered that people were really starving. I used to hear that in the news but it was sort of a story to me. I wasn’t rich, but I grew up with all the food I needed. So seeing malnutrition in the villages was eye-opening. I remember going to houses where they didn’t know where the next meal would come from.”
Neema’s experience with World Vision, particularly her exposure to the reality of food insecurity, guided her choice of study when she enrolled at Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA) in 2007.
“I knew what I wanted to do because of the experience of working with World Vision,” says Neema. So, I went straight to home economics and human nutrition. I selected everything that was related to food and human nutrition. I wanted to be a nutritionist.”
After graduation, Neema quickly got her wish. Just months after earning her degree, Neema was hired as one of the Tanzanian Ministry of Health and Social Welfare’s first regional nutritionists. She was appointed to the Tanga region, where with little guidance she was expected to supervise nutritional policy throughout multiple districts.
“It was very hard at first,” recalls Neema. “I was among the first nutritionist posts in Tanzania, and nobody knew what it was that I was supposed to do. I had to develop a program. I used to do anything to make sure that everyone knew about me. I conducted seminars like crazy to demonstrate to people what I’d be doing and the importance of having a nutritionist in the region.”
Neema’s role required her to juggle the needs of many stakeholders, managing nutrition programs at a regional hospital while coordinating the implementation of nutritional policy in all nine of her districts and traveling the region to ensure that health and nutrition standards were being met. Her role in the Ministry of Health reminded her daily of the struggles of less-privileged, malnourished and often-marginalized communities within her own country.
“I love working with people, and I like working with under-privileged communities. This job has grounded me and opened my eyes to a very different world. I’ve been exposed to individuals and communities that suffer from both HIV and malnutrition, as well as diabetes, hypertension and other nutrition-related diseases. I’ve learned to empathize with those communities and their struggles.”
Just as working at World Vision inspired her to become a nutritionist, the Ministry position renewed Neema’s commitment to improving nutritional health in Tanzania. In order to gain the knowledge and skills to aid an even wider community, Neema sought further education. She discovered the iAGRI scholarship opportunity through a close friend, and before long Neema was enrolled at Tuskegee University’s Food and Nutritional Sciences Department. There, she received top-notch graduate training under the advisement of Dr. Norma Dawkins.
“Dr. Dawkins is the kind of woman that will push you to achieve your goals,” says Neema. “She doesn’t allow her students to settle for less. She’s taught me to be more professional by being punctual, and as a successful woman in academia, she’s been a role-model.”
When she enrolled at Tuskeegee, Neema worried that her education would not be applicable back home due to cultural and socio-economic differences between the United States and Tanzania. Despite her reservations, Neema recognized the value in learning about nutritional disease from a foreign perspective.
“In the US, there is not very much malnutrition, so it is not discussed as much in the curriculum. However, because I was learning about what we call ‘rich diseases,’ or those nutrition diseases more common in developed countries, I was able to expand my knowledge in ways that I would not have had I remained in Africa.”
At Tuskegee, Neema had numerous opportunities to attend nutritional conferences and seminars and network with peers who study malnutrition throughout the world. Through that interaction, her training at Tuskegee and advice from Dr. Dawkins, Neema devised the research she’d implement back in Tanzania.
“I’m conducting a nutritional intervention,” explains Neema. “I’m testing the effectiveness of maternal education on selective complementary feeding practices given to 6- to 24-month-old children. I educate mothers on proper feeding practices and then at the end of the experiment, I’ll assess the nutritional status of the babies in order to see if the mothers abided by the knowledge I taught them.”
Dr. Dawkins’ advice was especially important in shaping Neema’s research methods.
“My first intention was to simply implement a nutritional intervention,” recalls Neema. Dr. Dawkins suggested that I should include baseline research to understand what the participants already know and don’t know so that when we begin to plan the education we do so around their needs.”
A distinguishing aspect of Neema’s intervention is that it tests non-traditional teaching methods for educating the mothers. Recruiting dancers to perform a routine and sing about complementary feeding is only one such method that Neema will employ over the course of her 12-week experiment.
“We thought that we shouldn’t just lecture and leave it at that,” explains Neema. “We thought that we needed to make the lessons interesting. So, we’ll use role playing, performance and live demonstrations — methods that we hope are very memorable.”
In addition to guidance from Dr. Dawkins, Neema also benefited from the expertise of SUA food scientist Dr. Peter Mamiro, who was her local supervisor. An expert in complementary feeding practices, Dr. Mamiro’s greatest role has been in guiding Neema’s research implementation in Tanzania.
“I choose Dr. Mamiro as my advisor because of his expertise in complementary feeding. He’s been able to foresee what will happen with my research implementation, so he’ll say don’t do this or that.”
Both Dr. Dawkins and Dr. Mamiro are in Peapea for the initial session of Neema’s first intervention, and they gladly helped Neema weigh and measure children while conversing with mothers. Now, they’re enjoying the traditional dance performance as Neema briefly steps in line with the dancers and tries to keep rhythm with the stomping and chanting.
If all goes well, the entertainment will help the mothers remember what they’ve been taught. Neema hopes they will feed their children according to her program and, seeing positive results, pass their knowledge along to non-participant mothers. Neema is hopeful her intervention and educational approach will ultimately serve as a model for nutritional policy and a viable alternative or supplement to traditional food aid.
“In my time as a regional nutritionist, I witnessed a lot of food aid and I thought, ‘okay, they will eat that bag of rice or flour, and then what?’ By using education, I expect the knowledge that I give them to spread to others. People will talk to each other and spread the message. I won’t only be teaching the women of Kilosa because they, in turn, will be teaching others. I also expect to see their children’s health and nutrition improve by the end of the experiment, which will help Tanzania reach some of their Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).”
A decade ago, as an intelligent and motivated high school student with a love for math and science, Neema couldn’t have envisioned where her talents would ultimately take her. A single volunteer experience with World Vision instilled in her a dedication to improving human nutrition. Now in the final stages of her master’s research, Neema’s position as regional nutritionist awaits her return. With enhanced skills and knowledge from her iAGRI experience, Neema is well-prepared to fulfill her dream of improving nutritional health throughout Tanzania.
If you would like additional information on Neema Shosho’s research or the opportunity to sponsor her research further, please contact us.
All images and story by iAGRI photographer and writer Tyler Jones.