Speak with anyone from Sierra Leone, a tiny country on the western coast of Africa, and the civil war (1991-2002) inevitably comes up like a cruel interruption. There’s life before and life after— but it’s what one does with what’s left that matters. For Aminata Shamit Koroma, this means helping lead the fight against hunger in a country where one in three children is malnourished.
Aminata grew up in Freetown, the youngest in a large and loving family. Every day, she saw hungry kids around her neighborhood and then, like now, she would take them home to feed them. She always wanted to go into medicine, but says her hands were too unsteady for dissection. While attending N’Jala University, Aminata realized that, as a nutritionist, she could take care of sick people without having to pick up a scalpel. So she went to graduate school at King’s College in London to study nutrition before returning to Sierra Leone to take a position with the Ministry of Health.
Then a war of extreme brutality broke out. The lucky ones fled, albeit with nothing. Aminata was among them.
She ended up in Maryland, where she got a job with Sodexho USA working in the food and nutrition departments of Holy Cross Hospital and Sibley Memorial Hospital, and at its corporate office. There, Aminata waited (and waited) for the war to end and things to stabilize in Sierra Leone. She waited for a decade to make sure the tenuous peace would hold. All the while, she remembered home, dreamt of it and knew she would make it back one day.
In 2007, that day finally came. Aminata returned to Freetown to consult for various international agencies participating in the recovery process, and set up a private business to help young people find work in the abysmal post-war job market. In 2009, she started working for the government again as its National Nutrition Program Manager. That same year, Sierra Leone was ranked among the five countries with the highest global hunger index score by the International Food Policy Research Institute.
Roughly 70 percent of Sierra Leone’s population lives in poverty and one-third of the country’s children under the age of 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition (ACDI/ VOCA). When Aminata was hired, only four districts had nutritionists. Today, thanks to her aggressive recruitment efforts and persistent advocacy, all 13 of Sierra Leone’s districts have at least 1 nutritionist. There are four national Officers for the Community Management of Acute Malnutrition (CMAM), Infant and Young Child Feeding (IYCF), and nutrition surveillance, as well as and four clinical nutritionists at the hospital level. Sierra Leone’s Vice President now leads a nutrition steering committee for the Scaling up Nutrition program, meaning that nutrition has become a priority at the top level of government. And universities are finally offering graduate nutrition programs, keeping vital human resource inside the country.
To implement national policies at the community level, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) help manage Sierra Leone’s IYCF and CMAM programs. For example, International Medical Corps runs the Sustainable Nutrition and Agriculture Promotion Program in 5 districts and 18 chiefdoms. According to Aminata, Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Health is considering adopting International Medical Corps’ “very effective” Care Group model, through which lead mothers are trained to share critical nutrition messages with their peers.
Still, big challenges persist. It “goes without saying that more resources are needed” and remote, hard-to-reach areas remain underserved. Further, Sierra Leone’s high teenage pregnancy rate is contributing to the “vicious cycle of malnutrition” because young mothers can have trouble affording food for their children and maintaining exclusive breastfeeding, which is essential for growth and development in infants. But overall, Aminata and her colleagues have dramatically increased nutritional coverage across the country and are reaching far more people than ever before.
Extremely accomplished but notably humble, Aminata is quick to share the credit for these achievements. She is married with two kids and loves her job almost to the point of gushing. She admits her work can be frustrating, but “you don’t do this for any other reason than keeping children healthy and helping mothers enjoy their children.” Says Aminata, “It is so rewarding to see malnourished children come in and get better,” and it will be “that much more rewarding when the malnutrition rates go down.”
Although malnutrition is a complex ailment easily exacerbated by medical complications, to Aminata, the appeal of being a nutritionist is that “you can see people get well right before your eyes.” She has watched countless children and women recover quickly with “just nutritious food and proper care.” And while it remains critical to address the myriad complexities of nutrition, it does not intrinsically make sense why some people get enough food and others do not. It should be simple; we should be able to get this right.
With people like Aminata at the helm, we just might one day.
Aminata Shamit Koroma is an honoree of the REAL Awards, a first-of-its-kind global awards program designed to develop greater respect and appreciation for the lifesaving care provided by health workers around the world. An initiative of the Frontline Health Workers Coalition, the REAL Awards seeks to demonstrate the universal and urgent need for more trained and supported health workers on the frontlines. International Medical Corps nominated Ms. Koroma, Sierra Leone’s National Nutrition Program Manager, for the REAL Awards. She will be honored at a celebration in Sierra Leone on April 12, 2013.