It takes a village for a mother and her child to thrive
Soweto community-based programme is a step towards a stunting-free future for SA children
Pink bunting creates an appealing contrast to an SA community centre’s brick facade, which is the same brownish shade as the dusty streets surrounding it. The centre is in Soweto, 15km from Johannesburg. The bunting serves as decoration for the Flourish class for expectant mothers, who are sitting in a group doing pelvic exercises, followed by breathing and a sort of meditation on their babies’ wellbeing.
“Your baby is blessed to have you as a mother,” says the class’s leader, Tabea Nong, to calming music. “Hold your belly. Tell your baby you are here and will take care of him or her.” The pink bunting, a purple Flourish sign and Nong’s matching neck scarf bring colour to the room and its surroundings. They are comforting, as are the 10 weeks of mum-and-baby classes about pregnancy, motherhood and sisterhood that women in lower-income areas can attend on a Saturday morning.
The Flourish programme is one of the many initiatives conducted by the Grow Great Campaign, led by Dr Kopano Matlwa Mabaso and supported by a multifunder network, which aims to achieve zero stunting in SA children by 2030. These are essentially 90-minute antenatal classes, but the desired impact is greater – to get women to register their pregnancies earlier and reduce stunting, which affects nearly one in four SA children.
In a country where 47% of women “show up late” to get prenatal check-ups – about five months into pregnancy – the Flourish project is meant to work alongside existing state-provided healthcare. Five months pregnant is often too late to address issues such as under-nutrition, chronic illness and high blood pressure.
Dudu Mkhize, spokesperson for the Zero-Stunting Initiative – one of the many stakeholders in the programme – said Flourish “supports, celebrates and empowers pregnant women and new mothers through the critical first 1,000 days of a child’s life.” She added: “We know that when moms attend antenatal classes, stunting is reduced. People don’t want to attend classes that just provide medical information, so we also wanted to create a community around them.”
Mkhize said moms-to-be who attend these classes are often lonely, unsupported single mothers. “By creating this community, we have a platform where they can learn about motherhood. The byproduct is that it reduces stunting.”
Using a social franchise business model, the popup classes are run by mothers – in this case, Nong – who start their own branch using the Flourish learning material, processes and training, with support that ranges from practical healthcare guides to the uplifting decor that creates a pleasant, safe space for the women. “Our franchisees, who are also moms, top up their incomes while doing something they love and giving back to their communities,” said Mkhize.
One of the first trained class leaders, Nong describes the programme as a “stokvel” – a group to which members regularly contribute an agreed fee for the host. Those who can afford it pay R15 a visit. “We call them visits, not classes, because we are sharing the journey of pregnancy,” said Nong.
For students such as Refiloe Khanyeza and Mmabatho Mokgadi, Flourish provides a chance to make sure they stay on the correct clinical path and remain healthy. They learn practical skills, too: making toys inexpensively, learning how to save for their child’s needs, and getting tips on how to earn money while on maternity leave.
“I am doing yoga, which helps to calm me when I am feeling hormonal. I also learned how to discuss my mood changes with the people at home so they can be more understanding while I’m pregnant. It strengthens your mental health,” said Mokgadi, who also started crocheting clothes for her baby and to sell.
The mental health aspect is a means to address stunting, which can be caused by breastfeeding problems, illness, undernutrition and maternal depression.
Khanyeza is learning how to play with her kids. “I didn’t know about bonding or playtime being so important. Now I know how to make toys without spending money,” she said.
For third-time mum Caroline Makungo her surprise baby meant relearning the basics, such as how to hand-pump milk should she need to go back to work. “I didn’t know about the first milk, colostrum, being so important to flush out the baby’s toxins. I thought I knew about pregnancy and raising kids, but I am learning many things – things you can’t speak about at home, like being a moneysaving mother and how to plan for the children’s future,” she said.
According to Nong, Flourish is based on the concept that it takes a village to raise a child. “It is for moms to know they are not in this alone, to feel free to talk about things that are happening to them,” she said. “It is a judgement-free zone, and because it is held in the community, it creates a space for lasting friendships. They will need it even more once they have their babies.”