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Story for Future 7: Mary gives iron to children in Kenya and Malawi.

Mittwoch 10. März 2021

«I grew up in Mombasa, Kenya, and did my studies in Nairobi. When I finished, I was clueless what to do. I wasn’t able to find an occupation in my field, so I randomly looked for something because I needed a job. I got one in pharmaceutical sales, but I quickly found out this is not what I want to do. I quit, even though it provided me with a stable income. Several weeks later, rather by coincidence, I met people working on the topic of anemia, iron deficiency and this is where my interest in iron nutrition in infancy developed. I was able to help with their lab work, and later after my Masters studies, I got a one-year scholarship for research at ETH Zurich and one thing led to another. Last week, I have just defended my PHD thesis at the ETH Zurich lab of human nutrition.

My thesis is about improving iron intake of children in Kenia and Malawi. Iron is important for cognitive development, if children don’t have enough, there can be irreversible effects. A lack of iron also impairs the effect of vaccines. Iron mainly comes from green vegetables and meat, and in resource-limited settings, infant nutrition is mainly starch-based. We tested ways to give additional iron to children: either as powder that is sprinkled into the porridge or changing the food itself, for example the cereals children eat every day. It is very important to think about details, when, how often and how much additional iron is given, because it has a big impact on how well the iron is absorbed.

In Kenya, we trained a local team and in Malawi, there was another group I was collaborating with. I like being in the field, working with local people and interacting with participants. In some studies we followed the children for several months. I could see the changes from day zero. It was very inspiring that the health of a child can improve day by day if you intervene in a beneficial way. Not only their health got better, but also their mothers became much more aware about their child’s nutrition and wellbeing. Of course, there are always ups and downs. Some studies involved feeding children at seven in the morning, so we had to be at the hospital at six. Some days it was raining heavily. We were waiting for participants, would they show up? Sometimes we sent a driver to their home to pick them up, sometimes we got stuck in the mud.

It wasn’t just smooth sailing, there were a lot of uncertainties. You have to be resilient, but that is something that comes with time, you may not know how resilient you really are when you start. When I think back, three important things come to mind. First, to be bold enough to realize when you are not really satisfied with what you’re doing. Second, to be brave enough to step into the unknown. And third, to be passionate,when you find what suits you. My family and friends were very supportive, if they doubted me then at least they didn’t let me know. What you do won’t make sense to everybody else, so you have to know yourself what you’re looking for. For me it is important to have an impact, no matter how small it is. It makes me happy to do something and see how it helps another person.

Now, I have no concrete plans yet. I’m resting, looking for job opportunities. Time will tell.»

Mary Uyoga, ETH Zurich, Laboratory of Human Nutrition. 

 

If you want to hear more from Mary and other people engaging in sustainable development in Africa, subscribe for the event African Leadership for a Sustainable Future: Stories to Inspire on Friday (application until Wednesday).

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