By Molly Fincher, World Ark writer
Photos by Olivier Asselin
Malnutrition, stunting and frequent illness are common among children in rural Ghana. The Djabas, along with hundreds of other families nearby, have discovered through a Heifer project that eggs and education might be the cure for what ails them.
AFRAMASE, Ghana — “BEN!” A chorus of affectionate voices ring out above the sounds of children playing, neighbors visiting, chickens clucking, goats bleating and the rest of the perpetual barnyard cacophony of the homestead where the Djaba family lives. Multiple family members are calling to the precocious 4-year-old Ben, who appears with an irrepressible grin and runs into the circle of laughing admirers. This is a constant refrain throughout the day, a pattern played out again and again as family members feign exasperation at the boy’s antics.
“Ben, Ben, Ben … he is a ruffian,” Rachael Djaba said proudly of her second-to-youngest. Djaba, 42, is the mother of nine children ranging in age from 2 to 23 years old. She and her husband, Joseph Tetteh Djaba, 46, are former subsistence farmers, but now they have a thriving poultry business. Four years ago, Ben happened to be just the right age to qualify the family for a project focused on nutrition for young children.
The idea of the project and study — a partnership between Heifer, McGill University, World Vision and the University of Ghana — is to improve childhood nutrition by making sure kids get sufficient protein in their diet—namely, at least an egg a day.
Stunting and anemia are prevalent among children in the Upper Manya Krobo district, the region of Ghana home to the Djabas. It is a rural area, populated mostly by subsistence farmers and fiishermen. For many of them, their income rarely stretches to cover much more than banku and fufu, traditional fare made of plantains, cassava or corn. These foods offer plenty of carbohydrates, but little else. Those who joined the project, however, received chickens and training on how to raise, care for and sell any excess eggs and poultry that were left after providing children in the family with at least one egg a day. Families also got seeds for home gardens. Because vegetables had been considered a rare luxury before, project participants had to learn how to cook with them and incorporate them regularly into their diets. By introducing eggs and leafy greens to the families’ diets and helping them set up businesses that produce a regular stream of income, Heifer and our partners hoped to curb malnutrition and give children a better start.
Before joining the project, the Djabas grew maize for sale. When the money from the maize crop ran out, they cut trees to make charcoal to sell. The family took on debt to buy medicine when they needed it, but struggled to pay back loans. The kids went to school only when the family could pull together money for fees and supplies. The family didn’t have enough to eat, and the children were consistently sick.
The first requirement to join the project was having a child under 1 year old. Ben was the “lucky baby who brought the project to this household,” Rachael Djaba said. But they very well may not have qualified for the project, despite Djaba’s eight other children, if they hadn’t adopted Ben almost seven months beforehand. Ben’s biological mother was mentally ill and abandoned baby Ben when he was one week old. Despite already having seven children at the time, the Djabas took him in. Reflecting back on the decision, Rachael Djaba said, “Even though we think we are poor, there are people more poor than us.”
Raising baby Ben was a struggle because he was so often ill. “It was like a hell to keep that baby alive,” she remembered. He was seven months old when project staffers came to Aframase, looking for families who qualified for the project. Djaba credits the project with reviving Ben and helping him grow into the healthy, vital boy we see today.
The Djabas started out with 40 chickens but quickly had to make room for more. They’ve already sold 80 chickens and still have 170 on their farm. Even after incorporating eggs into their daily diets, the family collects enough to sell 20 crates of eggs at a market every Friday. Plus, they get big income bumps from selling groups of hens that have stopped laying.
Without these perks, it’s hard to imagine how the family would have kept afloat. “It has not been easy raising nine children,” Rachael Djaba said. Her voice is deep, and tired. “The most difficult thing about raising kids is feeding them and figuring out what’s wrong if they are sick. They cannot tell you. The best time is when the baby is happy. When the baby is happy, I am happy.”
Rachael and Joseph want their children to go to school, get good educations and secure good jobs. They envision them driving up to visit their parents in their own cars. That future is a definite possibility now. Rachael Djaba credits her new poultry business with bringing in enough money so that all of the children can go to school. She’s also enjoying the unexpected benefi t of improved relationships with her children. Without the stress of hunger, illness and financial strain, the parents are less irritable, and everyone enjoys each other more.
Joseph Djaba says he’s especially relieved to have some savings put away so he won’t have to borrow money any more. His goal is to be the leading poultry farmer in the district. His vision is that if anyone wants to buy chicken or eggs, his house will be their first stop.
The possibility of an even more prosperous future is nice, Rachael Djaba said, but the most striking and important diff erence for her is that her children are no longer plagued by constant illness. No one has had to go to the doctor in over two years, a record for the family. As far as she is concerned, “If you are not sick, you are wealthy.”