Early morning, men dressed in shukas at Kapcheror village in West Pokot drive their livestock into the thicket to graze.
Carrying ng’achar (traditional stool), supported with Lukup (traditional walking stick), they walk down to Kasai stream, which has dried.
Here, men from various villages, guided by Pokot elders gather to share arising issues and find a lasting solution, under an umbrella outfit dubbed ‘kokwo’.
Among issues shared include the election of both national and local leaders, security and the challenges facing the community.
The Standard catches up with Luka Akori, a 45-year-old spearheading antenatal care talks within the Kasai Ward Kokwo unit alongside Kasai stream.
In the group, he lists the names of all the attendees and directs them to report on the state of their pregnant wives and babies’ growth, for possible solutions.
He explained that Kokwo supports breastfeeding, maternal nutrition and feeding of children, and enables men to walk with their women during pregnancy. “Everything that involves taking care of children in Pokot community is the responsibility of women, but through the clusters, men have learned that pregnant women need to feed on a balanced diet, and also rest,” said Akori.
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The elder said a majority of pregnant women are fed on ugali and milk, foods that are not rich only in carbohydrates and protein - an issue that deprives the growth of children.
Apart from feeding and antenatal care, community health volunteers educate men on the importance of hospital deliveries and childhood immunisation.
Akori, a father of seven, joined the Kapchoror Kokwo unit after visiting a health centre in Uganda, where he found men being trained on the importance of attending antenatal clinics (ANC).
“I did not have any knowledge on ANC, but through training, I accompany my wife to the clinic, and too, buy her food to boost her immunity during pregnancy,” he said.
After about two-hour training, Akori distributes Family Muac, a malnutrition diagnostic tool, to fathers, to help monitor the nutritional status of their children. The Family mid-arm upper circumference (Muac) has three colours in the tool, namely yellow (moderately malnourished), green (normal) and red (severely malnourished). Children who are found to be severely malnourished are referred to hospitals for treatment.
In the Pokot community, the majority of children, he said, are introduced to complementary feeding at three months.
According to the Nutrition Smart Survey of 2021, West Pokot County has the highest stunting rates in Kenya at 35.1 per cent, accounting for 44,283 children under five, with stunted growth.
About 11.9 per cent representing about 32,983 children are estimated as wasted and are at risk of dying and require immediate treatment.
Cases of malnutrition in the county are attributed to poor feeding practices, with 56.5 per cent of the infants introduced to complementary foods at an inappropriate age.
At least 96.8 per cent of the children aged between six and 23 months are also not fed on a minimum acceptable diet.
Unicef Kenya Chief of Field Office Lodwar that serves West Pokot, Rotuno Kipsang, said the UN body is engaging the community on the importance of diet in children and pregnant women, through kokwo. “Elders in the Pokot community are highly respected, and their decision is final. This is why their involvement in changing nutritional indicators is important,” Kipsang said in an interview.
He added “Kokwo trains men on a variety of meals pregnant women should feed on, that helps in the development of a baby, failure to which, there are high chances of stunted growth,”
Through the programme, breastfeeding has improved from 39.9 per cent in 2017, to 74 per cent in 2020. Stunted growth in children has also improved from 45 per cent in 2014, to 35 per cent.
Kipsang added that elders also ensure pregnant women visit clinics, for a safe birth. “We use community health volunteers to train fathers, on why their wives should not deliver at home, to avert deaths,” said Kipsang.
Through kokwo, men are currently accompanying women to the hospital and passing the information on hospital delivery and immunisation.
At 135 deaths per 1,000 live births and 565 deaths per 100,000 live births, West Pokot ranks poorly in under-5 maternal mortalities, worse than the national average of 52 deaths per 1,000 live births.
“We are looking at an elaborate engagement of aspirants from now to June, to get commitments in terms of what they will do, to enhance livelihoods and improve the welfare of children,” said Kipsang.
Adjacent to the men’s meeting point-there is their industrious wives irrigating vegetable farms along the river.
The women, clustered under the Mother to Mother support group, grow different types of vegetables that supplement their diet.
Vegetables grown in the gardens include cowpeas, spinach, amaranth, beetroot, carrots, managu and sageti.
35-year-old Regina Siliye, carrying her four-month-old daughter, is among the women working on the farms.
“I earn about Sh200 every day, from the sale of vegetables, the money I use to buy food for my family,” says Siliye who also does casual jobs to generate more income.
Salome Tsindori, Programme Manager, Action Against support group, consists of lactating and pregnant mothers.
“As women come together to support each other through farming, they are also trained to feed their children. They also encouraged to exclusively breastfeed their children, to avert malnutrition,” said Tsindori.
As the country prepares for the August 9 polls Unicef has identified six priority issues for children that they want the next government to prioritise and is engaging political candidates on these issues.
The areas include providing the best possible start in life to address malnutrition; enhancing education by connecting all primary schools to the Internet; primary and community health.
Additional areas are social protection, including cash transfers; ending violence against children and measures to prevent harmful cultural practices such as FGM; and halting climate change.
“We have been directly engaging political parties and candidates since the beginning of this year, asking them to consider including these six issues in their manifestos,” he said.