Tackling malnutrition in Rwandan refugee camp

Learn how a community-led approach to healthcare and nutrition is positively impacting malnutrition levels in a Burundian refugee camp in Rwanda.

Political unrest and conflict in Burundi since early 2015 has forced thousands of Burundians to flee, causing a refugee crisis in the region and an influx of refugees into neighbouring countries. Rwanda is among the countries struggling to cope with the unprecedented stream of refugees.

Improving nutrition in Mahama refugee camp

Since July 2015, Concern Worldwide, together with our partner organisation American Refugee Committee (ARC), has been providing essential services to Burundian refugees arriving in the Mahama refugee camp, in the eastern province of Rwanda. Many of the refugees arrive from Burundi suffering from severe malnutrition and other medical complications after their long journey. Concern’s work in the camp focuses on tackling malnutrition by providing lifesaving food and community education programmes about nutrition. By engaging with local community members and training them as Community Health Workers and Group Facilitators, Concern has been pioneering a community approach to nutrition in Mahama.

Community health work

Godance Nishemezwe and Bucyumi Louis, pictured below, are Burundians living in the Mahama refugee camp. Through Concern’s emergency nutrition programme they have been trained as Community Health Workers (CHWs).

Godance Nishemezwe (left) and Bucyumi Louis (right) at the Concern Worldwide Offices in the Mahama refugee Camp for Burundians in Kirehe district, Rwanda. Photo taken by Donna Ajamboakaliza / Concern Worldwide.
Godance Nishemezwe (left) and Bucyumi Louis (right) at the Concern Worldwide Offices in the Mahama refugee Camp for Burundians in Kirehe district, Rwanda. Photo taken by Donna Ajamboakaliza / Concern Worldwide.

Whilst living in the Mahama refugee camp Godance (L), a former university student and Bacyumi (R), a former primary school teacher, saw an opportunity to get involved with Concern’s nutrition programme. On passing a written exam, they both received training from Concern’s nutrition staff and are now working in the refugee camp as community health workers. They are each assigned responsibility of 70 households and are expected to visit individual tents and conduct education sessions with mothers to share key health and nutrition messages. Bacyumi explains their role:

We check on the sick, sometimes accompany them to the health facility and keep medicine for patients to ensure they complete the dose.

Bacyumi notes that music, dance and drama are often employed as a means of effective communication with the community:

We sensitize our communities on hygiene, health and nutrition using music, dance and drama as a channel of communication. Our people understand things better when we sing or act.

The CHWs programme has been successful not only in terms of its contribution to the reduction of malnutrition in the Mahama refugee camp, but also in terms of the confidence it has instilled in each of the participants. Godance explains how they have become trusted and respected members of their communities. “We have gained the knowledge as CHWs with regard to nutrition and health and can now look after our own children.”

Mother to mother support group

Denise Kageyo, pictured below, is a member of the Burundian community in the refugee camp and is a facilitator of the Mother to Mother support group. The group is another community-led nutrition programme that provides support and education to the young mothers in the Mahama refugee camp.

Denise holding a BCC material on nutrition for pregnant and lactating women. Photo taken by Donna Ajamboakaliza / Concern Worldwide.
Denise holding a BCC material on nutrition for pregnant and lactating women. Photo taken by Donna Ajamboakaliza / Concern Worldwide.

Denise encourages mothers with children under the age of two to attend health and nutrition sessions which take place twice a month. Using educational materials provided by the Concern, she educates mothers on infant and child health. She tells us about the positive impact: 

Mothers have begun understanding the importance and best practice of exclusive breastfeeding and its place in a child’s cognitive development.

It’s clear that Denise takes pride in her work and derives personal satisfaction from her role as a facilitator: “…as a mother facilitator, it makes me happy to see other mothers gain knowledge on how to look after their children better and improve the lives of the families.”

Mother Facilitator, Denise Kageyo (left) and Florence (Concern staff seconded to ARC) during a mother to mother session in Mahama Camp. Photo taken by Donna Ajamboakaliza / Concern Worldwide.
Mother Facilitator, Denise Kageyo (left) and Florence (Concern staff seconded to ARC) during a mother to mother session in Mahama Camp. Photo taken by Donna Ajamboakaliza / Concern Worldwide.

What next?

At the end of 2015, the Mahama refugee camp in Rwanda was home to a total of 45,159 Burundian refugees, with 8,300 being under five years old. If the unrest in Burundi continues to deteriorate, the population is expected to increase to an estimated 100,000. Concern is determined to build on the success of the emergency nutrition programme, and its positive effect on the Burundian refugee community in Mahama.

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