One of Manka’ah Che’s favorite things to do growing up in Bamenda, Cameroon, was cooking with her brothers and sisters.
“We would make all kinds of food in these small bottles,” Manka’ah says. “Now I’d say we’re good cooks,” she adds with a smile.
Manka’ah noticed, though, that not all of the children in her community had the same access to food.
“Some of my friends as a child had bulging stomachs,” Manka’ah says. “They looked sick and like they needed attention.”
The cases Manka’ah encountered are unfortunately common in Cameroon, where 1.2 million children are stunted and 2 out of 3 are anemic, according to the latest UNICEF figures.
Manka’ah vividly recalls her mother caring for an abandoned baby, feeding the infant chicken broth and nursing her back to health.
When years later Manka’ah found herself working for Doctors Without Borders, she encountered a baby not unlike the infant her mother had helped.
“The baby boy was so tiny and couldn’t talk,” Manka’ah says. “I knew then that I wanted to prevent this from scarring him, and scarring others, later in life. I wanted to give children like him a better future.”
Manka’ah, now a nutritionist with the Nutritional Sustainable Development Organisation and a 2019 Mandela Washington Fellow, is working to educate people across Cameroon — especially mothers — about the benefits of early nutrition.
“The first 1,000 days of an infant’s life are crucial to his lifelong health,” Manka’ah says. “It was my work with these infants that drove me to nutrition and to telling their stories.”
But Manaka’ah’s path to progress in Cameroon has been a bumpy one, not least of which because of strong resistance from public health administrators.
“I was turned away by so many hospitals,” Manka’ah says. “They didn’t understand the importance of nutrition.”
Instead of waiting on hospitals to acknowledge the value of her work, Manka’ah began an educational series in her community on public health, leading a weekly training session in local homes to expound on the value of a healthy diet.
“We all face setbacks,” Manka’ah says. “It’s picking yourself up and moving forward that makes the difference.”
For Manka’ah, it’s a passion for her work that underlies her resilience.
“Sometimes people get caught up in qualifications, but what matters in the end is what you do for others,” Manka’ah says.
“When you are planting something in someone’s heart, that is your organization.”
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