By Giada Aquilino – Vatican City
Beginning “with the local experience”, with “concrete actions”, “from the grass roots”, to seek new ways in the battle against the “tragedy of malnutrition in Africa”. This is how Brother Fabio Mussi, Caritas coordinator for the diocese of Yagoua in the northern part of Cameroon, feels “challenged” by Pope Francis’s Encyclical Laudato si and by the Pope’s invitation to promote programs capable of demonstrating that the human person can still “positively intervene” in safeguarding our common home and “act generously, supportively and caringly”. Originally from Lissione (Italian province of Monza-Brianza), for eleven years this Pime missionary has been working in Comeroon in which 39% of the population lives below the poverty level: the 2019 Human Development Index ranks Cameroon 153rd out of 180 countries.
Caritas’s work in Yagoua
Famine, climate change, the territorial instability of this Anglophone region, violence toward children, families and entire communities, the encroachment of Nigerian Boko Haram Islamic extremists continue to threaten the population and Cameroon’s primarily agricultural economy.
It is in this context that Caritas operates, in particular in Yagoua, where it has been developing hydraulic projects, constructing and repairing water wells (100 new structures and 80 repaired each year); educational projects, with 32 elementary and pre-schools, seven trade schools and two high schools serving a total of about 10 thousand students; healthcare projects, with several clinics and a diocesan hospital in Tulum (about 60 km from Yagoua); projects providing assistance to displaced persons and refugees; projects contributing to the fight against malnutrition: over the years, in collaboration with the World Food Program, local Caritas agencies have managed a project assisting 12 thousand children in the area of Lake Chad, distributing kits containing food supplements imported by UN agencies.
“In the extreme northern region of Cameroon”, the Italian missionary explains to Vatican News, “there is an acute to serious malnutrition rate higher than the national average”. Six out of ten regions in the country record a stunt in the growth rate and a chronic malnutrition rate greater than 30%. In the region where Brother Mussi works, it is 40%. “It is estimated”, he reports, “that they are more or less 40 thousand underweight children who need to be treated. It also needs to be said that these are reported cases. It does not mean this is the actual situation, because in many cases, given the general insecurity and problems, this average may actually be much higher. In addition, in 2020 we also experienced severe flooding. Some areas lost their crops due to the flooding but also because packs of pachyderms, elephants and rhinoceroses, passed through”.
In this territory where being on the periphery seems to have provided a cushion regarding the effects of the Covid pandemic, other illnesses such as malaria and cholera are, however, “normal”, the missionary says. There are many cases of meningitis, especially “between February and March, when it is hot and dry and the wind blows from the desert”.
A local solution
“Analyzing the situation and the rates of malnutrition in our areas, we became aware”, explains the coordinator of Caritas of the diocese of Yagoua, “that the only effective system for us at this moment is that of distributing food supplements. This is very important right now. But we began to ask ourselves”, he continues, “how long this can go on because food supplements cost money and it is complicated to get them here in these parts. There are UN international agencies intervening to combat food insecurity and malnutrition. But”, Brother Fabio asks, “when these organizations leave, will it still be possible to fight against malnutrition with the same imported products?”
“Studying the experiences of this place and other nearby countries a little”, Brother continues, “we discovered that local, internal solutions exist. The most workable seems to be utilizing a local, fairly widespread, yet underappreciated plant: the moringa tree.* It is a that has all the properties needed to complement the nutritional value children receive without a huge expense”.
The missionary explains, “The moringa tree is native to India, but has been present here for decades. It resists tropical temperatures and drought. In addition, it grows rapidly and produces leaves and seeds that are rich in vegetable protein, minerals and vitamins. Therefore, promoting its cultivation and production on the local level, may bear excellent results. What is more, there is no need that its leaves or seeds be treated. It is enough to dry them and you can mix them in your food or infuse them like tea. From the data we have, tested in other African countries and verified by a number of universities, all a malnourished child needs to be treated is a teaspoonful of moringa powder every day for three months in order to regain strength and weight”. The FAO notes that moringa leaves are rich in protein, in vitamins A, B and C and mineral salts and recommends it for expectant women, nursing mothers and small children.
Laudato si’ and the pilot project
“Pope Francis”, emphasizes Brother Mussi, “says that the basis of our commitment for and in our common home begins with the ‘recognition of the rights of others’ so as to follow an ‘ethical and spiritual itinerary’ that, through various aspects of the current ecological crisis also knows how to treasure the ‘results of the best scientific research available today’. The Pope’s words”, he observes, “invite us to value the results and experiences of scientific progress, adapting it to various situations for the common good. ‘Change is impossible without motivation and a process of education’, the Pope explains. For us, this means that sometimes we should not be satisfied with pre-fabricated solutions, but that we should look for new solutions that are more in keeping with the values proposed by the encyclical”. It is for this reason, he continues, that Caritas Yagoua is moving forward with the moringa pilot project.
“We had already planned in June 2019 to experiment cultivating the plant ourselves. We distributed the seeds among the farms and agricultural organizers. About 500 moringa trees began to grow. We harvested the leaves and turned it into powder, thus preparing small packets, each weighing 50 grams, at a cost of about 500 CFA francs, that is, approximately .80 Euro. Beginning in September 2020, we began to distribute them at no charge to women who receive assistance in the centers where we work, and in Catholic healthcare centers. The mothers who have children with malnutrition problems can thus receive either seedlings or seeds to plant so they can grow the trees and thus have direct access to the product, becoming autonomous”. It is important that “this knowledge regarding how to treat certain pathologies, such as malnutrition, is passed on to these women so that, even though they are illiterate, they might know that taking good care of their children means ensuring a better life for everyone”.
* Translator’s note: the moringa tree is also known as a drumstick tree.