Arusha. Atop a dusty patch of grass, a group of mothers, infants in tow, talk excitedly with one another. The mood is festive – overenthusiastic.
They talk about customs, traditions, beliefs and even faith. They speak of things that have made it harder for them to do the basic s to keep their babies healthy.
Most are brave, they talk about their triumphs and how they made sure their babies are born healthy and remain healthy.
“Two weeks after I gave birth to my first born, he cried a lot,” says Marium. She’s a mother of two. Her arm’s cradled around her newest born, perched preciously on her hip.
“I didn’t know what to do”, she goes on, “So I asked the elders – and they told me to give her something to eat, because my milk was not enough.”
“But I refused”, she says, to murmurs of approvals from her peers. All new mothers just like herself. “I stuck to breastfeeding him exclusively till he was six months old. Only then did I start feeding him on solid food.”
Mariam is testifying at a get-together for mothers of children under the age of 5. It’s her safe space – designed by USAID Tulonge Afya project for new mums, like her across the country.
Only this day, Mariam and her friends enjoy the company of US Ambassador to Tanzania, Dr. Donald J. Wright and Mwasiti, a popular Bonga Flava artist.
The mothers talk about how they struggle to exclusively breastfeed their children for Six months, amidst unyielding ‘customs’ that disempower their decision-making.
They have a lovely time, dance, learn new things, share strategies for thriving, and securing their babies health, within their own communities.
They also fret about things like when to immunize a child, if all fevers should trigger a clinic visit and whether their partners would support the use of modern contraception.
Their stories are reflective of the broader desire for these types of spaces, where new mums can let loose and figure out how to best be there for their babies.
Arusha is one of 12 regions where these “mother meet-ups” happen.
They are supported by USAID, under USAID Tulonge Afya – a five-year project that seeks to “catalyze opportunities for Tanzanians to improve their health status by transforming socio-cultural norms and supporting the adoption of healthier behaviors.”
Mother meet-ups are managed under Tulonge Afya’s Naweza platform. It is designed to bring together mothers of children below the age of five in conversations about the health issues that matter to them, their families, and the welfare of their children.
They are modelled after ‘kitchen parties’, a sort of sendoff for soon-to-be-married women, replete with the expectations of looming motherhood that such moments tend to trigger.
For many of these women, mother meet-ups are affirming, entertaining, exciting. They are an opportunity for tête-à-têtes about the one thing that matters to them most: their baby’s health.
This approach – bringing mothers together in conversation about their babies’ wellbeing – supports the government’s push to reduce maternal and newborn mortality rate, says the representative of the Project Coordinator Dennis Kabuta from EMAC Tanzania.
According to Mr Kabuta, interventions such as mother meet-up have helped Tanzania get closer to eliminating preventable maternal and newborn deaths.
He believes such projects empower individuals to take actions to improve their health and benefit entire communities.
His advice to new mothers-“Fight the traditions, customs and beliefs that keep you from becoming healthier, embrace all the positive customs”
“And share these lessons – because what you’ve learnt today is your weapon in the fight to for your health, and that of your child”
Donald Wright, US Ambassador to Tanzania, reiterates the US government’s commitment to safeguarding the wellbeing of mothers such as Mariam and her baby by investing in the healths and livelihoods of Tanzanians.
The US government has provided significant support the Tanzanian health sector, investing in infrastructure development, health policy reforms, capacity building and social and behavior change.
He says, the American people will continue to provide funding to support maternal, newborn and child health interventions, family planning, and HIV/Aids prevention, care and treatment.
For Mariam and her child, this is welcome news. Projects such as USAID Tulonge Afya, implemented in 29 districts including Arusha City Council and District Council, are a precious lifeline for new mothers like her, empowering them to make the right health decisions for themselves, their newborns and families.