Mozambique is a country of 24.5 million inhabitants in south-eastern Africa, and one of the least developed nations in the world. According to Unicef, 76 of every 1,000 children die in infancy.
Malnutrition and infectious diseases such as malaria, cholera and tuberculosis plague the population. Approximately 15% of all Mozambicans between the ages of 15 and 49 are HIV positive. Unicef estimates that nearly 500,000 Mozambican children have had one or both parents die of AIDS.
Docent Riitta Freese of the University of Helsinki’s Department of Environmental and Food Sciences conducted fieldwork in nutrition science in the Zambézia Province of Mozambigue in 2010. As part of the nutrition research project ZANE, she studied the diets, body composition, height, weight and blood samples of Mozambican girls between the ages of 15 and 18.
“We couldn’t bring any expensive, large and sensitive instruments into the rural areas. But you can get quite far with just a measuring tape and calipers to measure subcutaneous fat,” says Freese.
FRUIT TO THE RESCUE
The researchers surveyed the food selection available in Zambézia as well as the use of plants foraged from nature. To support their work, they put together a table of the nutrition content of local foods. In addition, the researchers gathered information about food-related beliefs.
Even though diets in urban areas are more diverse than in rural Mozambique, the nutritional quality of the food was not necessarily much higher.
“When we studied the blood samples of the girls for vitamin A, folates, zinc and iron, we found that in these respects, the nutrition situation was poorer in the cities than it was in the country,” says Freese.
In rural areas, the food doesn’t have to travel: it comes from nearby fields, vegetable patches, cashew and fruit trees and the chickens in the yard.
Literacy is lower in rural areas and women get pregnant at a younger age than they do in cities. Teen pregnancies are common. Of the 550 girls in the study, 63 were pregnant. Mozambican mothers have five children on average.
Freese’s fieldwork was scheduled for two periods: January-February which are known as the hungry season, and late summer, which is the harvest season when food is more readily available.
Some of the findings were surprising to the researchers.
“During the hungry season, the girls’ blood serum showed fantastic levels of vitamin A and folates. This is because – while most food is scarce in the beginning of the year – that is the time when the mangoes ripen,” Freese explains.
The ZANE study was carried out in cooperation with the Food Security and Nutrition Association in Mozambique. In addition to Riitta Freese, the research group included Marja Mutanen, Liisa Korkala and Helena Hauta-alus from the University of Helsinki.
The article was published in Finnish in the Yliopisto magazine 2/2014.