Bed nets and chaya: How Peace Corps Volunteers tackle the intersection of nutrition and malaria

A female Volunteer sits outside and hold up a drawing of nutritious foods and moringa
By Emma Murphy
Dec. 10, 2018

Chaya is a micronutrient-rich, fast-growing leafy green that tastes a lot like spinach.

A male Peace Corps Volunteer holds up a leafy green plant to show his Senegalese friends.
Agroforestry volunteer Archie Creech Jr. distributes chaya cuttings to women at a training so they can plant them at their own homesteads.

Since 2017, health and agriculture Volunteers in southeastern Senegal have been working together to encourage local communities to cultivate and consume chaya, moringa and other nutrient-dense foods to improve food security and nutrition outcomes in their areas.

Chaya is not local to Senegal and unlike moringa (nebadaye), most Senegalese women have never heard of it. It resembles a local plant that is said to “bring loneliness into the home,” so people are hesitant to plant it. Personally, I’ve had chaya growing in my backyard for over a year, but my host mothers refuse to cook with it, wary of the unknown. I’ve been enjoying chaya in the occasional egg scramble I make myself on lazy Sunday mornings.

When a nearby fellow Peace Corps Volunteer began growing chaya in his backyard garden and attempting to convince his host moms to cook it for dinner, he had an uphill battle ahead of him. But the chaya grew like wildfire and, as dry season dragged on, the alternative leaves his neighbors were using to cook became scarce. Attitudes about chaya began to change in his village. Today, if you visit his area, you’ll find chaya growing in most homes and frequently served for dinner as a sauce with corn couscous.

In July 2018, as a continuation of that project from the previous year, Volunteers in my area loaded their bikes with cuttings of moringa, chaya and sweet potatoes, and a few mosquito nets. As part of Peace Corps Senegal’s Malaria Month, six health and agriculture Volunteers conducted a series of trainings in four villages to teach community members about malaria prevention, nutrition and cultivation of nutrient-rich foods.

A female volunteer holds up a sign to show her neighbors the dangers of malaria
Health volunteer Emma Murphy discusses the danger signs of severe malaria and the importance of early care-seeking at a Malaria Month training.

Each training consisted an in-depth discussion around the nutritional value of moringa, sweet potato and chaya, as well as demonstrations on how to properly propagate the plants. Participants took home cuttings and seeds to plant. Malaria prevention and treatment was also covered at each training, reminding communities during peak rainy season about the importance of bed net usage and early care-seeking.

One community health worker who participated in this training is Assatel. After the malaria and nutrition training, Assatel planted chaya in her home and quickly ate her way through it. A few weeks ago, she came to my hut to get some leaves for dinner and cuttings to replant. The next day, a neighbor came by as well. A few days later, word made its way around village and back to my host mom.

“Knock knock, Hawa”

“Yes.”

“Can I have some of those leaves that Assatel was talking about to cook dinner tonight?”

“Of course!”

We’ve had nothing but chaya or moringa leaf sauce for dinner for the past week. Behavior change in a community starts with one forward-thinking, open-minded change agent. The best people to convince someone to change are the members of that same community, friends and family.

As Peace Corps Volunteers, we see this process up close. And the results are seen in the nutritional status of my baby host sisters and all the other young community members who will grow up to become tomorrow’s leaders.


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