The Smell of Porridge and a Sense of Belonging

As Porridge Moms cook together in Northeast Nigeria, they find a safe space for learning and sharing

For nine years, the conflict between the Nigerian government and local insurgency has been tearing apart Northeast Nigeria. Nearly 27,000 people have been killed and more than two million have been displaced in Adawama, Yobe and Borno. Resources are scarce, and much of the population relies on humanitarian aid to survive.

Many, like 25-year-old Kolom Abbas, have survived unimaginable circumstances and traumatic journeys to safety. Before arriving in Hursobeshar, an informal displacement camp, three years ago, she lived with her husband and three children in Marte, a conflict zone under the control of insurgents.

“As a woman, I was not allowed to go outside,” recalls Kolom. “Because of the militants who surrounded our community, we lacked food. If we were lucky, we cooked one meal a day. For two years, we were full of sadness because even when we had the food, we could not cook; even when we could cook, we were afraid to start eating because we feared an attack.”

Kolom and her family were eventually able to escape. When military airstrikes began, they took advantage of the chaos and started a long journey to safety.

“We walked in the bush for four days,” says Kolom. “When we arrived in Maiduguri, we were exhausted from tiredness and hunger.”

Kolom Abbas, 25, is a mother to three young children. She and her family were displaced by the prolonged conflict in Northeast Nigeria.

Photo: Sébastien Duijndam / Dalam
for Action Against Hunger, Nigeria

Market Day in Maiduguri

The dust whirls in the early morning air on the streets of Maiduguri, capital of Nigeria’s Borno State. Yellow kekes – tricycles – rush down the main road, zig-zagging between old trucks transporting vast quantities of wood, bricks, or people in their trailers. Off the main road is an alley, lined with shops, where vendors wait for shoppers to arrive.

One of their customers is Kolom, who is here to buy this week’s ingredient for a group of women called the Porridge Moms.

There are about fifteen women in each group of Porridge Moms, an initiative run by Action Against Hunger and supported by the US Government’s Food for Peace program. Every day, they gather together and make nutritious meals for themselves and their young children. As they cook, the mothers learn and share with each other and with Action Against Hunger’s teams about nutrition, healthy childcare practices, and good hygiene. The group receives a monthly stipend to pay for food items and other costs.

Kolom, who was elected by her peers to serve as the treasurer for her Porridge Moms group, receives the group’s stipend in cash and vouchers. She is pictured here with members of the Action Against Hunger team, market vendors, and the secretary for Porridge Moms.

Photo: Sébastien Duijndam / Dalam
for Action Against Hunger, Nigeria

At the market, Kolom hands over an electronic card to a cash vendor and a food vendor selling yams. She is identified through a biometric fingerprint reader that connects to a mobile application, which shows the group’s account balance and transaction history. The monthly amount is divided between cash for water, firewood, and transportation costs and electronic vouchers to buy food. Kolom receives 6,500 naira in cash for the non-food items and then uses the card to buy yams.

A keke is loaded up with 49 yams, beans, dried fishes, palm oil, tomatoes cans, curry powder, and other spices. Back in the group’s kitchen where they live in Hursobeshar Camp, an informal settlement for displaced people, the Porridge Moms all work together to quickly restock shelves. This week, they plan to make yam porridge meals, enough for one meal a day for all the participants and their children aged six months to five years.

Kolom rides back from the market in a keke with the week’s ingredients.

Photo: Sébastien Duijndam / Dalam
for Action Against Hunger, Nigeria

Recipes for Porridge – and Long-Term Support

“We monitor for malnutrition monthly by measuring the mid-upper arm circumference (MUAC) of pregnant and breastfeeding women and their children under five years old who eat this meal. Some of children whom we screened since the beginning – who were malnourished –are already recovering,” says Titus, Action Against Hunger’s food security and livelihoods manager in Borno State. More severe cases were referred to the nearest nutrition center, where they received outpatient treatment in addition to the daily meal made by the Porridge Moms. “More than 90% of the people we are assisting are internally displaced people. They have been through a lot and are very vulnerable.”

Inside the Porridge Moms kitchen, which was constructed a year ago and has two hearths for cooking.

Photo: Sébastien Duijndam / Dalam
for Action Against Hunger, Nigeria

For women like Kolom, being part of the Porridge Moms group is not just a way to help make sure her family gets the nutrition they need – it’s a way to cope with harsh living conditions and a precarious future. “I was pregnant and I lost my child two months ago when I went to the hospital because of medical complications. It is better for me when I go to the kitchen with the Porridge Mums – if I stay at home I only think about our situation and my sickness. It is complicated to think about the future. I want my children to go to school. There is no security in my hometown.”

Saide, a displaced woman who is part of another Porridge Moms group in the region, echoes the feeling of support and comradery Kolom feels: “Porridge Moms gave me a sense of belonging. I can relate to my fellow mothers. We have been through similar painful situations. We visit each other often for chatting or simply sitting and listening to the radio together.”

Saide’s children inside the family’s tent. Each day, they receive a nutritious meal cooked by the Porridge Moms.

Photo: Sébastien Duijndam / Dalam
for Action Against Hunger, Nigeria

In addition to joining the Porridge Moms group, Kolom is also part of Action Against Hunger’s cash transfer program and receives 18,000 naira -- $50 dollars -- every month, which covers most of the food her family needs as well as charcoal, detergent, matches, other basic items that help make life bearable.

The program provides cash monthly to highly vulnerable households, with the goal of improving access to food and helping meet basic needs. In places like Maiduguri, where the markets are functioning, participants redeem half in cash and the rest in electronic food vouchers that they can redeem from selected vendors.

“We strongly believe that by giving a person cash to buy what they need, you restore one’s dignity, instead of having the person line up and wait to collect food distributed,” explains Titus. “At the same time, we have evidence that cash transfers help the market system recover.”

Shopping at the market in Maiduguri.

Photo: Sébastien Duijndam / Dalam
for Action Against Hunger, Nigeria

Action Against Hunger is a global humanitarian organization that takes decisive action against the causes and effects of hunger. We save the lives of malnourished children. We ensure everyone can access clean water, food, training and healthcare. We enable entire communities to be free from hunger.