Friday, August 10, 2012

Turn the TV off

I’ve been thinking about the impact that the media has on our self-perception as women, minorities, etc, because it’s something that interests me. Much of what I’ve encountered is negative. For instance, the scarcity of positive black role models in the TV and print media leaves children feeling that there is not much for them to aspire to. As for black females, they take away from the media the idea that dark tones of skin and frizzy hair are to be detested, as are curvy figures.

This is heart-breaking, of course. But I also read something that got me wondering. It was an article about media consumption patterns among different racial and ethnic groups. According to the piece, black children spent significantly more time watching television programming than kids of any other ethnic group. That made me think about the roles we played as consumers, whether active or passive. And I did wonder whether there was something more we could be doing as individuals to make a difference in our children’s lives.

Are we all really as helpless as we make ourselves sound when we talk about the negative effects of the media on our kids? Do our kids have to be plugged in to Hollywood’s version of the world? What would it be like if we stopped being such avid consumers of empty, soulless programming and shallow magazine articles? What if we stopped feeding our children images of materialism, mediocrity and dysfunction?

I realize that many people turn to the TV and other forms of media to keep their kids occupied because they have limited options. Perhaps they’re working two or three jobs to put food on the table and can’t sit down to supervise their kids. Perhaps a sitter is beyond their budget. Perhaps having the kids go outside and play is not an option because the streets are unsafe. They likely recognize that plonking the kids in front of the TV is not the best option, but are trying to make do with what they have.

But is it really true that there are no options or alternatives? I would like to believe that people have some degree of agency, even in very difficult situations. Maybe they can’t reform the media, but they can certainly be more selective about their children’s consumption of it. Kids don’t have to watch or hear everything, even if it has been rated suitable for their age group. That applies to both TV and radio. Video games should also be included in this discussion. While some video games can be remarkably educational, others can be disturbingly realistic in their portrayal and glorification of violence and sexism.

Books are the most ideal form of information and entertainment that come to mind. When I was growing up, electronics and video games were out of reach. Our only consistent way to amuse ourselves, outside of playing or doing our chores, was to read. And that we did with gusto. All the kids I knew, whether poor, middle class, well-off, rural, or urban appreciated a good book. We made a habit of borrowing books from each other and buying second hand books. Brand new books would have been beyond our budgets, and functional libraries were like some rare species that you caught sight of once in a while.

That is why I wonder why it is easy for many Americans to identify books with elitism, and TV with the average guy’s experience. In my experience, books are actually cheaper to acquire in the first place, and to continue to use, while anything electrical or electronic is on the pricier side. Mind you, I’m not talking about heading to expensive bookstores or buying an e-reader. I’m talking about joining a local library, and getting access to thousands of books at no cost to yourself, or buying secondhand books. It amazes me that getting kids to appreciate books over cable TV, electronics, and video games can be a challenge in the American context. In an ideal world, books would be valued more highly, and literacy would have a higher priority than chest-thumping about being the greatest nation in the world.

It must be said, though, that even books have to be vetted. It’s not enough to grant one’s children access to books. One must also know what they are reading. Wherever possible, parents and guardians of impressionable kids have to play a more proactive role in determining what kinds of images they are being exposed to.
This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Friday, August 3, 2012

On HIV/AIDS, religion, and public health

Over the years I have lost many to HIV/AIDS: family and friends. I can’t tell you how many, though. I stopped counting a while back. However, I can tell you that, because of the impact of HIV/AIDS on my life, I know what stigma is. I know what it is like to watch people sink into depression, lose hope and die because those who matter most to them have rejected them. 

HIV/AIDS as we have experienced it in the East African context has struck the family as a whole: men and women in their prime and young children have been the typical victims. Our AIDS story has had much to do with heterosexuality. So one can’t simply label HIV/ AIDS a “gay disease” as has tended to happen in the US. Our governments have had to address AIDS as a national crisis because it has stricken the mainstream.

In nations such as the US, where the tendency has been to associate the disease with sexual and ethnic minorities, I get the distinct sense that little mainstream urgency has been attached to the fight against AIDS. There are certainly men, women, and youth who have devoted their lives to fighting this apathy. But, unfortunately, there are also others who tend to view HIV/AIDS as a form of punishment for “breaking God’s laws” on sex and sexuality. Of course, this is not a uniquely American view. I have also encountered it among some people of faith in the East African context.

My interactions with those who have expressed these troubling views have led me to think about just how limited this particular religious approach to human problems is. I’m talking about a specific interpretation of the Christian teachings on sex and sexuality. The idea is that, if everybody limits themselves to following these teachings and only engages in sex within the context of heterosexual marriage then sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as HIV/AIDS will cease to be a problem. In other words, the only way to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS is to be a “true” Christian.

That is all well and good, except that never in the history of humankind have all members of a given community adhered strictly to its religious teachings: A “true” Christian can get infected with HIV/AIDS even if he or she is firmly heterosexual, married, and faithful. For one, there is such a thing as a cheating spouse. Secondly, infection can be transmitted through rape. Yet another situation that facilitates the spread of infection is transfusion with infected blood and blood products. Yet another is the use of unsterilized medical equipment. The list goes on and on.

Those who persist in seeing HIV/AIDS as a form of divine punishment conveniently forget how closely interconnected we all are. As a result of these interconnections, HIV/AIDS does not discriminate. When you are exposed to the HIV virus, it does not ask whether you are “saved,” pray regularly, give alms to the poor, fast, or obey God’s law. If your defenses are weak, it penetrates them and infects your body whether you are rich or poor, young or old, “innocent” or not, devout or otherwise.

Keeping all of this in mind, how useful is it that a significant number of religious leaders have a simplistic approach to dealing with HIV/AIDS? How useful is it that they condemn it as a sinners’ disease, oppose the use of condoms under all circumstances, and oppose most forms of sex education? Simply put, their actions are not useful. In fact, to the extent that they influence public policy, they end up endangering everybody in the community.

Knowing this, I think that those of us living and working in communities stricken by HIV/AIDS should persist in emphasizing that it is treated by government and health organizations as a public health issue, not a moral issue. From a public health standpoint, we can speak about HIV/AIDS in its complexity. We can also talk about risks, prevention, and treatment. Importantly, we can make an effort to protect everybody.

What is the place of religion in all of this? Well, I honestly think people are entitled to believe whatever their religions teach them. However, I also think their beliefs should be directed towards governing their personal lives and setting moral standards for their religious communities. They should not be imposed on the broader national population as public health policy.

Further reading
"Education, honest dialogue key to halting spread of AIDS," by Chris Carlin and Debra Stanley, 1/17/07,
"HIV and AIDS stigma and discrimination," 
"Public health approach to combating HIV/AIDS,"
"HIV/AIDS stigma: an impediment to public health," by Ronald O. Valdiserri, MD, MPH, March 2002,

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Problem-solving: a skill we desperately need

I've had the good fortune to live and work with people who have devoted themselves to solving problems. They are really the unsung heroes of our communities. They are the ones who fix the things that are broken in our systems or carve out new paths to bypass the old, dysfunctional ones. These people work in a variety of fields. I'm not just talking about those who work in healthcare, law, social work, or pastoral care. I'm talking about people in almost any field out there. Heck, I could even be talking about you.

I've come to realize over time that people in general spend a lot of time and energy making much ado over nothing. We invest so much capital in symbolic battles against those whom we perceive as our enemies, and we do this in big ways and small ways. People who spend much of their free time gossiping about and undermining personal enemies do it. So do political parties and other large entities that thrive on creating controversy and provoking outrage. And these actions come at a cost. What they add up to, at the end of the day, are symbolic victories, but the real foundational problems remain in our communities.

You want some examples? Look at the state of contemporary American politics. More specifically, look at the kinds of legislation that American conservatives have been pushing for all over the nation in the past few years. I'm talking about those laws that focus on issues that conservatives consider to be key to the nation's moral fabric: abortion, contraception, gay marriage and civil unions.

If you happen to be conservative, you may consider these nationwide legislative victories to be a great accomplishment for your side. But there's one thing you should be worried about vis-à-vis this kind of legislation: It's the fact that the legislators making it happen are doing it as part of a cynical calculation. The idea is this: By achieving these symbolic legislative victories, they signal to the people who voted for them that they have done what they were put in office to do. They subsequently win the loyalty of their constituents, but they have absolutely no incentive to work on legislation that actually solves the biggest problems facing their communities (e.g. unemployment, the failing health care system, malnutrition).

Today, American communities battling poverty, health crises, and other long-term problems are not actually dealing with these problems. Not in terms of policy, anyway. The problems are not even on the agenda. And the not-so-funny thing is this: When problems are ignored, they do not vanish. In fact, they have this knack of growing bigger and bigger. An apt illustration of this is Mississippi, one of the poorest states in the U.S., where conservative legislative efforts have been focused on making the one abortion clinic in the state next to impossible to operate. In the meantime, the average Mississippian is struggling to make it from day to day, living in the margins.

If you're on the ground in these communities, the situation is very frightening. To use a Kenyanism, things are elephant (there's a huge catastrophe impending). You watch as the existing problems are compounded; perhaps you even know what is broken in the system and how to fix it. But you also know that any proposals you make for policy changes will come to nought. Only if your proposal stands to make somebody somewhere a fat load of cash will it see the light of day.

In Kenya, I see pretty much the same kind of inertia about solving problems. The symbolic battles fought in the media are often flimsily disguised battles about ethnic supremacy. Occasionally, they're about religious supremacy and morality. Many Kenyan politicians and religious leaders alike are highly vocal about these kinds of issues. They know that they are effective in rallying support, and 'consolidating the base.' And they are successful: For some reason, people gain tremendous satisfaction from boisterously supporting or opposing some cause or another, and don't seem to mind that their shouts and rallies do nothing to ease their lives. When all is said and done, the old problems persist in the community: poverty, chronic health issues, food insecurity, environmental degradation, and others.

The people I consider heroes in this anti-pragmatic climate are the ones who live in our communities, recognize our problems, and put in the hard work necessary to solve them in their own small way. If they have private capital, they use it to put their ideas into practice. If they don't, they reach out to others in the community with similar interests and they leverage their resources to craft solutions. When they face obstacles due to political obstructionism, corruption, etc, they don't give up. They simply look for a way to bypass them. Their main aim is to solve the identified problem, not to get fame for it, and not to profit materially from it. So they labor on quietly, achieving little victories and making a big difference in the lives of some.

Their victories do not lie in reaching large numbers of people. Even if only a few people's lives are improved, the problem-solvers' achievements remain meaningful. They form a template that the rest of us can borrow from. We can learn from them: We can learn about the techniques they used and adopt their attitiudes. Hopefully, by adopting their active approach to life, we can solve some of our larger problems.

These thoughts didn't come to me out of the blue. I've been pondering on them for a long time. Part of my motivation has to do with the work I have done as a volunteer, and my exposure to others who have volunteered in other contexts. Part of my inspiration actually comes from observing those religious and ideological communities that place a high premium on self-sufficiency (sometimes due to a history of persecution). Even in those cases where I disagree with their core teachings, I find that they have valuable attitudes and practices that have helped them to thrive. Some of the groups (broadly-defined) that come to mind include the American nucleus of the Church of Latter Day Saints and the survivalist movement in the United States.

One of my more recent inspirations was Dylan Ratigan, who until recently hosted a show that was part of MSNBC's daily line-up. It seemed to me that he placed a high premium on getting beyond partisan squabbles to discuss real problems and solutions. I don't know how successful a recipe that was for TV. Addressing real issues is hardly ever sensational enough to attract consistently high ratings. But I did take away from his show the urgency of pulling our heads out of the ground and getting to work. In the last installment of his show, he emphasized this philosophy and described his intention to continue working with those who were committed to developing solutions to the problems in their communities. He also wrote briefly about the same in one of his Huffington Post articles.

Another huge inspiration comes from Iran, via Mississippi: A description of a community health project that is intended to reach the rural poor. I've already linked to the relevant article above, but here it is again: These folks are working with very little institutional support, but their ideas are clearly solid. I can't help wishing that they could rally the support of local communities, especially churches, and mobilize the public to raise funds for their endeavors.

Working together to build the community is a learned skill. Some people are fortunate enough to be born in communities where this skill is taught. Others are born in communities where it is underemphasized. For those living in communities of the latter type, learning how to organize to solve practical problems is a godsend.

Reading about these kinds of communities makes me realize just how important effective community organizing is. We tend to think of community organizing as facilitating civic protest. But it can help communities achieve much more than that. Surely, it can help communities develop solutions to their healthcare problems. It can also help them educate families about healthy nutritional practices and sustainable living.

One of the fundamental lessons I have learnt from my experiences and from others is that one's capacity to be an effective problem solver is drastically diminished if he/ she is an outsider to the community. How can one propose practical long-term solutions when he/ she hasn't lived in a community and doesn't know in precise detail what kinds of complications govern the community members' lives? This seems obvious. It also explains why the best solutions for community problems are homegrown solutions. One can't simply translate solutions wholesale from another community. They have to be tried out locally and modified to suit local circumstances. And for them to gain any currency in the community, they have to be seen to work for locals.

This is why I'm increasingly inclined to support the idea of people everywhere being more proactive in crafting solutions for their unique local problems using whatever resources they have at their disposal. Governments may help in some ways, but they can't do everything. In some cases, they don't do anything, not even the bare minimum that we have come to expect from them. As I write these words, I'm thinking about the annual floods and droughts in certain parts of Kenya (for example), and wondering at the fact that, even when these catastrophic events happen predictably, we still get caught unprepared. What can we realistically do in local communities to be better prepared for these kinds of crises?

To answer these kinds of questions, we need to take a close look at the social infrastructure we have. We need to look at the ways in which our communities are structured, see what kinds of social nets we have for people in times of crisis, and determine how to strengthen them. If the social net is the extended family, what can we (as individuals and families) do? If it is a local religious community, then let's work with that: what can we do? I'm interested in seeing religious activists spending less time burning boxes of condoms at rallies and more time building structures to support teen mothers who choose to keep their children, or to help AIDS patients who are stigmatized by their communities.

I'm also interested in seeing so-called tribal organizations investing their energy in mentoring young unemployed men and women and giving them internship opportunities, not indoctrinating them to hate others. How about villages? There's so much we can do, especially those of us whose communities have lost their most productive men and women to diseases such as HIV/ AIDS, TB, cancer etc. There is much more we can do to support the struggling families among us. We come equipped with active minds and bodies, so let's not wait for help from on high.

In the spirit of practicing what I preach, I intend to continue blogging about this subject. It strikes me that problem-solving is undermined when one has little or no access to information. So I'm going to make it a point to share any information I come across that has the capacity to inspire and empower others. Feel free to communicate with us if you have any ideas that you'd like to share.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

When "beauty" is a scam

Thanks to "Victoria's Secret Models, Runway Walking and Booty Paint," an article by Erika Nicole Kendall, I got the opportunity to discover a December 2009 article by Leah Chernikoff that touches on some of the behind-the-scenes goings-on in the fashion industry.

Apparently, "countless hours" go "into making the most beautiful women in the world look so ethereally sexy." Pay close attention to the words of Selita Ebanks in "Victoria's Secret Angels strut runway in $3 million bras, 100 pounds of glitter," the second article. Ebanks, one of the models in the Victoria Secret Angels show, shared an open fashion secret: "People don't realize that there are about 20 layers of makeup on my butt alone."

The article goes on to describe the labor intensive processes that go into making that perfect shot:

In addition to body makeup, which Ebanks estimates takes well over an hour to apply, the Angels prep in hair and makeup for three to five hours before hitting the runway, with an average of five people - hair stylists, makeup artists and manicurists, working on each of the 38 models.

That's three to five hours, people. With five professionals working on one woman's skin and hair. And please don't forget the chuckleworthy 20 layers of booty makeup. Does any ordinary woman honestly think she can reproduce those conditions during her morning makeup routine? Does anybody actually want to reproduce those conditions?

I cannot lie. The article in its entirety cracked me up. I just find the lengths to which the media and the fasion industry will go to preserve the illusion of perfect bodies ridiculous. When you really think about it, it is nutty. None of us would hesitate to label a woman neurotic if she applied 20 layers of makeup to her lower body before stepping out in her swimsuit. But, somehow, it is okay when the fashion industry does it. Maybe we have managed to convince ourselves that the fashion industry is doing it to achieve artistic ends. However, we should be honest with ourselves. This "art" is being created for a receptive audience: us.

So what is this madness? Why do we allow the media to sell us such unrealistic images of female beauty? And why do we subsequently give ourselves the impossible task of living up to the associated standards? The answer is not that we are too naive to realize that the images are unrealistic. Every single woman looking at those images recognizes, at some level, that "alterations" have been made. The photos may have been edited, or makeup may have been lavishly smothered on the women's skin. Whatever the case, we know that those women do not actually look like that.

I'm one of those people who happens to think that audiences are not passive bystanders. We actually make choices about what forms of media to be exposed to. So we consciously choose to buy the fashion and style magazines, and we choose to watch those runway shows. I think that it is too easy to speak of the nuttiness of the fashion industry when we know only too well that their actions meet a neurotic need on our part.

What is to stop us from being more judicious in our choice of reading materials? What is to stop us from being more selective about the TV channels we watch? The answer is simple, but sad: Many women do not want to see images of "flawed" bodies on their TVs or in their magazines. They want to see "perfect" bodies. Any female celebrity who makes the "abominable" mistake of being caught on camera after venturing out without makeup or putting on a few pounds learns this very quickly.

It is apt that one of the commenters on Erika Nicole Kendall's article makes this  precise observation (in comment number 1.1). The commenter, Mac, points out that "when someone actually posts a picture of a woman with flaws, the other women in the crowd usually pick her apart every way possible. Someone posts a lady in a swimsuit and all you hear is, 'what’s that on her forehead,' 'her stomach doesn’t look right,' 'her arms need a little bit more work, she needs to go back to the gym,' and it goes on and on no matter how beautiful the woman is or what the commenters look like."

Mac hits the nail on the head. But it wouldn't be honest to claim that all women were guilty of responding negatively to portrayals of "real" bodies. Plenty of women see beauty and character in idiosyncracies. Freckles, moles, and birthmarks are among the so-called imperfections that make faces more interesting, and people more memorable. Excessive makeup and airbrushing tend to have the effect of making all models look alike. They all have the same look, the same bodily proportions, the same hair textures and styles. Frankly speaking, they become boring to look at, part of the monotonous background that we peer at as we flip through magazines, suppressing the urge to yawn.

Personally, I prefer to see images of "real" women because they are more interesting. I think that there is beauty in our idiosyncracies (which photo editors and makeup artists would likely call flaws) and in our diversity. It is truly sad that we allow people with limited imaginations to set the limits for the images we are allowed to see on screen and in print.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

On "Schrodinger's rapist" and the construction of healthy boundaries

An online search for the term "Schrodinger's rapist" led me to some very interesting articles, including the two listed below:

1. Schrodinger's rapist: or a guy's guide to approaching women without being maced
2. Schrodinger's rapist and Schrodinger's racist

I strongly recommend that you read these articles, because they bring into focus the all-important issue of setting boundaries and respecting them. Both articles address, to some extent, interactions between a man and a woman who are relative strangers to each other. They point out the degree to which the average woman has to be extra cautious when interacting with a man, because she has no way of knowing whether or not he poses a threat to her. He might turn out to be a rapist; he might turn out not to be one. But because rapists don't wear neon signs on their foreheads declaring that they are rapists, and because they do not have horns growing out of their heads or visibly forked tongues, she simply has to be cautious.

Now the thing is that there are many well-intentioned men in the world. They bear no ill-will towards women. When they set out to interact with a woman, perhaps they are just being friendly: Maybe they're trying to help a woman in a bad situation. But then the woman responds to their friendliness with coldness, suspicion or fear. The immediate response of many of these men is to take offense at the very idea that they could be thought of as potential rapists or thugs. It is a perfectly natural response and one that I understand. I imagine that I might be similarly miffed if, in a parallel situation, somebody misunderstood my intentions.

It is what happens next that is particularly interesting to me: The man could realize that, for whatever reason, the woman feels threatened by his attention. He could then adopt a less threatening stance and step back, ultimately leaving her alone. Alternatively, he could choose to give her a piece of his mind and express his displeasure or anger at her assumptions. Now I suspect that some may think that the latter approach is the way to go. But the two articles are adamant that it is not, and I am bound to agree with them. It is better to recognize that the other person has set boundaries and that, whether or not one likes them, one must respect them. When a man is unwilling to recognize that a woman's previous experiences are shaping her perceptions of his actions, and when he refuses to acknowledge that he might, in fact, be intruding in her space, and that she has the right to determine for herself what situation she is uncomfortable with, he is trying to intimidate her into 'trusting' or 'liking' him. That is bullying, plain and simple.

Now, I recognize that the situation described thus far is gender-specific, but this analysis could be more broadly applied to other contexts. I'm sure we can all think of gender-neutral instances where relatives, friends, coreligionists, workmates, etc. have taken offense when an individual has expressed discomfort with a situation, subsequently claimed that this person's assertion has offended them and tried to intimidate the individual into going along with their agenda

I am familiar with one particular situation because of my interest in HIV/AIDS awareness efforts. One of the things that has long been evident to me is that many people in sexual relationships have a hard time discussing sexual health and protection frankly with their partners. Ideally, this is something that needs to be discussed before they became sexually intimate and then revisited afterwards. But their partners often shut down the discussion by invoking "trust." Any inquiry about the partner's history of STD infection or any request that they should use condoms is almost invariably met with the response, "Don't you trust me?" even when the offended party knows that he or she is being unfaithful or has previously been infected. Thus, the individual's attempts to take reasonable precautions and to draw boundaries within which he or she will feel comfortable are turned into a personal attack on his or her partner's trustworthiness. Not surprisingly, many are essentially bullied into having unprotected sex, into infection with HIV/AIDS or other STDs and, in the case of some women, into unwanted pregnancies.

Yet another situation involves the man or woman who decides to leave the religion within which he or she was raised. Perhaps something about the religion violates his or her conscience. Perhaps he or she has never really believed and is tired of keeping up the facade. Thus, he or she decides to set up new boundaries by no longer worshiping, attending services, or reading the scriptures of that religion. Perhaps he or she chooses an alternative religion, one that sits better with his or her personal moral code. The coreligionists who respond to such a decision by framing it as a rejection of them and fight against it on that basis are essentially refusing to recognize his or her individuality and freedom of conscience.

The above situations illustrate the problems that can follow when people are unable to appreciate and respect the fact that an individual holds a different viewpoint. When the appearance of consensus is prioritized above all else, the truth ends up being sacrificed. People feel pressured to suffer their discomfort, or fear in silence, because they have been led to believe that expressing what they actually feel will hurt others' feelings. The process by which the other person's feelings end up being prioritized over their own emotional well-being is hardly examined. It just proceeds smoothly, taken for granted as the normal course of events.

This subject is one that I have thought long and hard about because I have come to recognize that this kind of coerced consensus is maintained, not just in interpersonal relationships, but also at the communal level. The community can bully an individual into agreeing with the status quo, or it could stand by in silent approval while an individual does the bullying. This is an ethical problem of immense proportions. It whittles away at one's individuality and crushes his or her will. Furthermore, it creates an environment where abuse can thrive unchallenged for years. Ironically, this is the status quo in many communities that claim to hold free will, honesty, and integrity as ideals, most notably, intensely devout religious communities.

The question is, "What is the best way to address this problem?" Returning to the original example, is it incumbent on the man who is perceived as "Schrodinger's rapist" to respect the boundaries set by the woman, or is it incumbent on the woman to hold on to continue to assert herself, even in the face of resistance or intimidation by the man? The obvious solution is that both approaches are necessary. But I have a special interest in asserting the importance of the would-be victim's actions in this situation. I think it is especially empowering for individuals to gain the tools that allow them to set up and maintain their boundaries even when being pressured to give in by others.

The beginnings of victory lie in recognizing the moment when one's self-assertion is made to seem like an attack on the other person's feelings and resisting that interpretation of events.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Emotional Wellness

There's a good piece on the Huffington Post called "10 Ways to Improve Depression and Anxiety without Meds." It's written by a psychiatrist, Dr Sheenie Ambardar, and I believe it is directed at an audience of people living with mood disorders. But I think it makes great advice for a general audience.

The first item on the list, "Limit Your Time on Facebook," cracked me up, but it is true. I think spending time on Facebook is okay if you're strategic about it, and do it for networking or professional purposes. Using your Facebook account as an extension of your personal life is another story.

I think the seventh item on the list, "Pick a Goal, Any Goal," is not specific  enough. I can imagine somebody picking a huge task as a goal, and then getting anxious or depressed about not being able to achieve it. That would contradict the intentions of Dr Ambardar in writing the article.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Setting your own limits

I have just come across a great blog post by the writer, Donald Miller. It touches on decisions that we can actively make to improve our emotional well-being. The post, Need to Manage Your Relationships? touches on the challenges Miller has faced managing his time and relationships in such a way that he can meet his professional and social responsibilities without exhausting himself.

You really should read this piece. It articulates what so many of us go through daily, trying to be supermen or superwomen in our jobs and lives in general. We are under so much pressure to perform well at work, to be supportive friends, and to meet whatever personal goals we have set for ourselves, that we forget that we can't do it all.  Many of us go overboard, committing ourselves to too much, and then subsequently wonder why we are so burnt out and resentful in the middle of the week.

I'm glad to say I checked out of that particular hotel a long time ago. But the article resonates with me because it parallels my own process of coming to the realization that I had to set my own limits and stick to them. I was the person best placed to do this because I knew when I was at my most productive, when I was most exhausted, what was really important in the scheme of things, and what wasn't.

From his brief post, it is apparent that Miller learned what his daily work and life rhythm was and structured everything else around it. Fortunately, I too learned to do something similar a few years ago, and it simplified my life tremendously.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

On popular perceptions of adoption in Kenya

In August last year, a Kenyan media personality, Caroline Mutoko, announced on her Facebook page that she had just become a mother. At first glance, it may seem like there was nothing unusual about this. After all, motherhood is part of the natural order of things. This, however, was a special situation. The radio show host had just successfully adopted a baby girl and was happy to share her joy with her fans.


Predictably, the responses to her announcement ran the full gamut. They ranged from those which lauded her actions to those which cast aspersions on her motives for adoption. Of those who wrote negative comments, some were sure that she had adopted because she did not want to 'ruin her figure' with pregnancy and childbirth. Others were certain that she had adopted in order to prove she was a 'self-sufficient woman', with no need for a man. Yet others claimed that she was infertile and poked fun at her for this perceived shortcoming.

These negative comments were pretty ugly, and they also said a lot about the insecurities of the people who expressed them. Many of them suggested an underlying belief that one's social worth primarily came down to his or her capacity to perpetuate the family line: Only a 'true man' could impregnate a woman, and only a 'true woman' could give birth. Anybody who 'failed' this basic test was not quite 'man enough' or 'woman enough.' It seemed that these people imagined that a child could only bond with those to whom it was related by blood and that adults could only feel maternally or paternally protective towards their biological offspring. Hence, a woman who had not given birth to the child she was raising was a 'fake mother;' she was simply masquerading as a mom until the 'real mother' came along. To me, the very idea that a woman or man who took on full responsibility for another human being could be labeled a 'fake parent' was absurd. What was so fake about the affection, time, and resources they had chosen to give to these children? What was so fake about the fact that the children now had a place and family to call their own?


It is true that giving birth to a child is in and of itself important. If women were to stop giving birth, the human race would not last long. However, we all know that a newborn cannot mold itself into an emotionally-stable, productive, adult member of society. It takes a parent or parents to do that. It so happens that the biological parents of children are sometimes unable to play that role. People pass away, leaving their children orphaned, others are incapacitated by illness, others are overcome by addiction, while others don't have the desire or capacity to nurture their children. This is why we make it possible for others to step in and play the parenting role: to protect those children, to feed, clothe, and shelter them, and to teach them morals and values. When they succeed in raising happy, well-adjusted, young men and women, who are we to take that achievement away from them by calling them 'fake parents'?


Those who are dismissive of adoption seem to forget one crucial thing. Our societies have structures in place for the protection of many children whose parents are, for one reason or another, unable to parent them. These structures are called extended families. Think about it: How often does the average African nuclear family welcome a young brother, sister, niece, nephew, or cousin into the home, and support them through primary and secondary school, or even college? Do these relatives not become part and parcel of the home? Do we not consider them our brothers and sisters and share our resources, however limited, with them? For all practical purposes, this system is pretty similar to adoption. Perhaps the only difference between the two comes down to the legal formalities that define them. Legal adoption bestows upon the adopters the legally-recognized role of parents while fostering within the extended family proceeds even without legal recognition. Both situations are defined by a shared ideal. They seek to provide a child with a loving family and a safe place to call home.

Fortunately, Kenyan society has matured to the degree that legal adoption is steadily gaining legitimacy in the public's eyes. More people recognize everyday that there is more to parenting than conception, pregnancy, and childbirth. In addition, more people are willing to accept the idea that we are all stakeholders in our society. When children in our communities suffer from neglect or abuse, their pain and suffering reflect on us as a whole, not just on their biological parents or relatives. We have something to offer to our communities, something that goes beyond our capacity to bring vulnerable, little babies into the world. Hopefully, as time goes by, we will develop an expanded sense of the roles we can play as socially-responsible, adult members of our communities.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

In America, everything is politicized

When I read this article, I had to laugh. It brought to mind a conversation I once had with my friend, Maina, a Kenyan living in the US. We were both attending an event organized by an African American student group. Some of the African American women attending the event were dressed in the best of African couture, but there was a distinct difference between the way they carried themselves and the way a Kenyan or Tanzanian woman dressed in a similar outfit would have carried herself. I put it down to the fact that the American women probably felt self-conscious in their dresses. Maina, who had lived in the country longer, had another theory. He figured that Americans didn’t know how to simply be. Everything they took up, every cultural practice or idea they picked up from another nation, they had to repackage, politicize and turn into a movement.

I shook my head in doubt, but Maina smiled. “Believe me,” he said, “this lady in the Kitenge is probably wearing it to express political solidarity with pan-Africanism. She’s not wearing it for the reasons our moms or aunties would- because they liked the color or because the pattern flattered their figures.” I never did ask the lady in the Kitenge why she was wearing the dress. That would have been rude. But today, as I read this article on Digital Journal, I have to admit to myself that there may have been something to Maina’s words.The title of the piece is “Time magazine cover features boy,3, sucking on mother's nipple.”  And here is an excerpt from the article:
The cover of this week's Time truly shows a boy being breastfed by his mother, exposing some side-boob. Aram Grumet, 3, was asked to stand on a chair and place his mouth over his mother's breast, a practise familiar to mom Jamie Lynne Grumet. The Grumets employ attachment parenting in their household, described by Time as "extended breast-feeding, co-sleeping and 'baby wearing,' in which infants are physically attached to their parents by slings.
I come from a part of the world where women routinely breastfeed their children. It is simply what they do. Most Kenyans, female and male alike, don’t give a second thought to a breastfeeding mother in the room. I can't imagine a Kenyan photographer conceiving of breastfeeding as a controversial subject, and going out of his way to have the mother and child pose in a manner designed to provoke readers. It is true that, in Kenya, some kids still breastfeed occasionally beyond the age of 3. This is normal. They ultimately outgrow it. It's not an issue that has to be politicized.

Apparently, a different order prevails some hours West of the Greenwich Meridian. Not only is the decision to breastfeed or not to breastfeed a political stance backed by ideology, but basic childrearing practices are also labeled with special terminology. America has already given us “helicopter parenting.” Make way for “attachment parenting,” “extended breast-feeding,” “co-sleeping,” and “baby wearing.”

Seriously, it would never have occurred to women of my grandmother’s generation to come up with fancy names for these basic practices. Nor would it have occurred to them that, one day, parents would engage in battles over the legitimacy of their child-rearing ideologies in the comments sections of magazine articles and blogs on the Internet. I think Maina was right. Americans can be a tad bit too ideological about everyday matters.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The delicate balance of our ecological systems

When I was in school, we were taught that the cause of malnutrition in our communities was the lack of sufficient protein in the diet. Today, I am much older, and have observed that there is a malnutrition epidemic in the Lake Victoria region in Kenya where fish, a rich source of protein, is supposed to be a staple. At first, I thought this was a uniquely Kenyan problem. Then I saw Hubert Sauper's documentary, Darwin's Nightmare. Apparently, a similar problem exists in the Lake Victoria region of Tanzania.

The film demonstrates how commercial fish harvesting over the years has exhausted the fishing stock in Lake Victoria, creating an ecological crisis. The Nile Perch fillets harvested from the Lake are processed then transported by commercial aircraft to Europe. The same aircraft rarely arrive in Tanzania empty. In fact, they usually bear arms that are then off-loaded under the cover of darkness. So we have a situation whereby Europe is enjoying fish fillets from Lake Victoria while the locals feed on the remains of the processed fish: skeletons from which the fish fillets have been removed. In the meantime, other locals are killed by the buyers of the illicit firearms when violence erupts in the region.

After watching Sawyer's documentary, I looked into the history of the ecological crisis in the lake region. According to available information the Nile Perch are an alien species of fish, which was introduced into the lake in the 1960s, just before Kenya became independent. Over the years, this alien species had decimated local fish stocks by predating on indigenous fish species. Thus, an ecological imbalance has resulted in the lake.

The locals used to subsist on the lake's indigenous food species. However, these have been depleted by the Nile Perch. In the meantime, the most substantial protein source in their diet is the waste from the Nile Perch processing factory:  Nile Perch remains. Thus, they live on a diet deficient in the nutrients that they need. The people in the region have no means to secure separate sources of vitamin A and omega 3 fatty acids. They  do not thrive. Hence poverty, malnutrition and disease are common in the region. As if this is not enough, Lake Victoria is considered to be one of the large fresh water lakes whose future survival is threatened.

For long, residents of the Lake Victoria region have complained about the exhausted fish stock in the lake. There has been little if any response from the sitting governments. A few years ago, I remember reading newspaper reports that indicated that Monsanto was already in the region, and that the introduction of other genetically modified species in the region was a possibility. In some areas, the locals were uprooted from their ancestral land to facilitate these 'innovative projects'. Their only compensation was a promise of maize supplies to subsist on every harvest season.  Maize based diets are apparently at the root of chronic malnutrition in the region. So that news did not bode well for Lake Victoria region's people, whose nutritional status is already declining .

When I read reports of this kind about environmental degradation and the development of supposedly superior species for human consumption anywhere in the world, I often wonder how local leadership fits into the picture. How do governments decide that the efforts of scientists and multinational corporations are for the good of their people? Is there a rigorous effort to look into the pros and cons of the proposed projects? Does money change hands? Are the locals informed about the details of the deals? How about the rights of other nations? In the case of Lake Victoria, which is a resource shared by 3 countries, how do the decisions made by one nation impact the other 2? Most importantly, what is the long-term impact of foreign species and GMOs (genetically modified organisms) on the environment and on the people?

Concerned people need to start taking these questions more seriously and thinking about the legacy are we leaving our children.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

On societal disapproval of young mothers

The blog post by toradora entitled "I'm Young & Pregnant, But I'm Certainly Not Stupid" is quite the read. In it, toradora describes people's reactions to the fact that she is a young mother.

Toradora highlights people's venomous comments and their condescending attitudes towards her. To me it's interesting to read her description of her experience because it confirms something that I have observed time and again: people are opinionated to the point of being offensive when it comes to parenting, even when they have no idea who they are talking to or what they are talking about. In the twinkling of an eye, absolute strangers can turn into "moral police," and proceed to lecture and insult hapless parents on subjects as diverse as breastfeeding, adoption and childbearing age.

Toradora's "sin," as perceived by the strangers in her story, is that she gave birth to her first child when she was 19 years of age. Now, in her early 20s, she is pregnant with a second child. She is quick to clarify that she does not fit the stereotype of a teen mom who "fell victim" to an unwanted pregnancy. Rather, she was engaged when she first got pregnant, and she and her fiance were thrilled about the pregnancy. Now, she and he are married, have a healthy child, are financially stable, and are looking forward to the birth of their second child. But they still are still subject to the disapproval of strangers and acquaintances who are convinced they know better.

Concisely, toradora sets the issue in context:

My grandmother was 19 when she was engaged, 20 at marriage and 21 when she had her first child. My mother was similar, as were most of my aunts and uncles and other extended family. When did it stop being acceptable for a woman to have children before a career if she wanted to? Or before 25 years old? When did it become unusual to marry young? I have qualifications. Several in fact. I'm married. I did all the things that should have made it "acceptable" for me to have a child. But people still see my age.

And that is the issue I must highlight today: How is it that, within one or two generations, our perspectives of life have changed so drastically? When did we become too narrowminded to recognize that it can, in fact, be normal for a young adult, 19 years old, to choose to get married and have kids, and to be matter-of-fact about it? I recognize that the statistics don't favor early marriages. I also recognize that many in their late teens make unwise decisions concerning marriage and raising families that quickly become untenable. But let's set aside the generalities and talk about individuals. Just because early marriage is unsuitable for many, it does not follow that it is unsuitable for all. Rather than stereotyping, why not set aside our prejudices and take people on their own terms?

Early marriage is a legitimate life choice when it is not the result of coercion or imposition by another, and when it is allowed by the law. This is especially the case in some religiously conservative communities, which recognize that it is unrealistic to expect the majority to abstain from sex until they are 29 or 30 years old. Mainstream society tends to prolong childhood into the mid-thirties and onward, indicating that it is not ideal to settle down and have kids until then. And this may very well be true for many, but it is not true for all. Some people are better off marriying at 32, some are better off not marrying at all, some are better off marrying at 19, etc. Assuming that one or another should apply to all people just does not comport with reality.

One of the unfortunate things about the prejudices that toradora highlights is that, when they manifest at the institutional level, they can lock people like her out of healthcare opportunities that, ideally, they should have access to:
So many times I had to fight to not be signed up for "young mother" programs instead of the mainstream programs. I don't have anything against these programs for what they are, but they were lacking in information, restricted, heavy on counseling and basic life skills, like hygiene classes. They were classes for the many young mothers in my community that simply "don't know." For instance the young mothers birthing classes went for two one-hour sessions and only covered a third of the topics that the mainstream ones did (which went for six two-hour sessions) -- and no, you could not take both. Because I refused the dumbed down class, I was refused all classes.
If anything, this is an indicator that one must be more thoughtful about how he or she approaches others' decisions on parenthood. Being well-intentioned is not enough, after all, we have all heard it said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Rather, one must also take pause and recognize that others are not mere statistics or pawns in some larger ideology; they are individuals with their own stories to tell.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Healthcare and ideology really don't belong together

The USA never ceases to amaze me. At this moment, a political battle is playing out in the Supreme Court that essentially pits the political right against Obama's health care plan. The biggest irony is that the 'socialized medicine' against which the right is fighting so hard is based on a conservative plan, proposed in the 1990s by a conservative think tank, and subsequently adopted by at least one conservative governor (Mitt Romney) in his state.

Perhaps history will prove me wrong, but I think this will turn out to be one of the biggest miscalculations of the political right. Inasmuch as "Obamacare" is not perfect, it is a vast improvement over what existed before. It gives more Americans access to affordable health care. Those who have not had the experience of being locked out of every possible insurance plan because they suffer from chronic disease or terminal disease may not realize just how revolutionary this is. The pre-"Obamacare" trend is not sustainable, especially since America has some of the worst health indicators in the industrial world, and these are getting progressively worse. As Americans become sicker, affordable health care is going to become increasingly necessary.

If 'true American values' continue to move towards the right, as they have been doing for the past 50 or so years, then Americans will wake up in a dystopian society some decades from today. Basic health care (including vaccination, prenatal and antenatal care) will be out of reach for the average person. Perhaps only 10% of the population will have access to fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy products. The rest will have to make do on heavily-sugared and salted food products. It sounds very much like the USA is trending towards "third world" status. Those of us from the "third world" who have seen what zero access to affordable health care for the majority of the population means in practical terms know that there's nothing ideal about it. The strangest thing of all is that the American public will have voluntarily taken itself in that direction  because of its ideological investments.

I think the political right would have done better to embrace "Obamacare" as their original idea. After all, it did grow out of a conservative vision for expanded health care coverage. By contrast, a vision originated by the political left would have pushed private insurance companies out of the market and replaced them with a single insurer: the government. Seen from this perspective, many on the left could (and do) argue that "Obamacare" is too huge a compromise by the Obama administration to the right.

If the right had taken credit for "Obamacare" they would have had a more coherent platform to run on. They would have been able to paint "Romneycare," not as a blemish on Romney's record, but as a superior plan to "Obamacare." I have to wonder what lies ahead for American politics and American health care.

The best-thought out piece I have read on the American health care system lately comes from Fareed Zakaria: "Health insurance is for everyone". Its valuable for its comparative assessment of health care and insurance in different national contexts. David Paul's piece on the Supreme Court and the insurance mandate is also a good read.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Changing our attitudes towards homosexuality

When they think about what it means to be gay, many East Africans focus on its physical implications: they think about gay people as those who have physical relationships with members of the same sex. Because sex is a physical act that one chooses to engage in, they figure that one can choose whether or not to be gay. This perspective fails to take into consideration the fact that, for many gay people, being gay precedes the act of sex. To them, being gay means feeling attracted to people of the same sex. Even if they never act on these feelings and choose to live a life of celibacy or one of heterosexuality instead, they know deep down inside that they feel attracted to members of the same sex and that they have felt that way for as long as they have been sexually aware.

I have read narratives by gay people who speak about becoming teenagers and realizing that, unlike their age mates, they felt absolutely no attraction to members of the opposite sex. They grew older and the status quo held: the heterosexual attraction that other people took for granted was never a part of their experience. Instead, they remember their first experience of feeling romantic love for another as involving somebody of the same sex.

I notice that most discussions of homosexuality in the East African media have not evolved beyond the expression of horror or disgust at the possibility that two men or two women can be physically intimate. Very few East African writers set aside the focus on the sexual angle to ask what it is that makes it possible for a man to feel attracted to a man or for a woman to feel attracted to a woman. Very few even ponder over what it is that makes them heterosexual. They just assume that they are heterosexual because that is the natural state of things. They don’t think about the biological and environmental factors that influence their sexuality. Nor do they realize that if a few factors in their lives had been different, they could possibly have been gay.

The truth of the matter is that there is no single definitive factor that makes a person gay or straight. Rather, a variety of factors interact to influence a person’s sexuality. They include genetic heritage, the hormones to which a fetus is exposed while in the womb, the structure of the brain, family influences, birth order and other factors.

Over the years, I have read of studies where it was shown that there were demonstrably distinct differences between people who self-identify as homosexual, and those who self-identify as heterosexual. These include physiological differences, e.g. differences in the sizes of specific parts of the brain, different brain responses to certain chemicals, and different ways of processing certain forms of information. One study I read about in a science magazine a few years ago (unfortunately, I can’t remember which one now) looked into the family structures of gay and straight men. It found that the gay men’s maternal female relatives tended to have more offspring than their paternal female relatives. The conclusion was that the X-chromosome, which was passed to these men by their mothers, was involved in some way. The scientists speculated that this chromosome was carrying genes that increased female fertility and the likelihood that male offspring would be homosexual.

I remember reading another article which indicated that more gay men tended to experience rejection from their fathers than straight men. Gay men also tended to have closer relationships with their mothers than straight men. The conclusions were not clear cut in this one. It could be argued that the fathers rejected their offspring because they sensed that they were somehow different from the norm and that the mothers tried to compensate. It could also be argued that the rejection by the fathers played a role in influencing their sons’ psychosexual development.

I can think of many more studies that focus on different biological and environmental factors, and show them to have some kind of influence on an individual’s sexuality. The conclusion I am bound to draw from all of this is that sexuality is complex, and that there are no easy explanations for the way it manifests in individuals. Thus, being gay or straight is not about simply deciding to feel a certain way.

Given that homosexuality is complex, and is determined by a variety of factors, our attitudes towards it need to change. We are living in the age of information. With access to the internet, many people really have no excuse for holding on to superstitious beliefs about sexuality.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Friday, March 9, 2012

How cultural norms contribute to malnutrition

This week, I have been reading Richard K'Okul's book, Maternal and Child Health in Kenya. The book explores the different factors that contribute to malnutrition in the community. These range from bad policies to poverty, ignorance and cultural factors that influence maternal nutrition.

One of the factors that I found unnecessary and sad was the cultural norm in Western Kenya, whereby a young married woman is not allowed to cook for her family. Instead, she has to comply with her mother-in-law's wishes. If her mother-in-law doesn't feel like cooking, then even small babies are condemned to remain hungry until she is ready to cook.

To make matters worse, the food cooked may not necessarily be suitable for small children. In parts of Nyanza Province where polygyny is common, it is the senior wives who control the cooking. It is common to see very young women who are married to elderly men carrying small children with kwashiokor. When asked why they can't feed their child better, they give answers like, ' I have not been given food'.

The point of this little story is to point out that  the time has come for Africans to reexamine and restructure their cultures in order to survive. It doesn't matter how many highly educated specialists Africa produces, if we don't take care of the basic anomalies in our family dynamics: Malnutrition, disease and death will remain common among African children. Young African men must therefore play their part in condemning these practices, and African mothers must advocate more for the welfare of their children. Then Africa will take one step closer to joining the global community.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Africa: an impending ecological catastrophe

Much has been written about global warming and the fact that Africa is least responsible for the emission of the associated pollution. Yet Africa remains most vulnerable to the impact of global warming. Rather than remaining silent observers of this issue, Africans can take certain steps to intercede.
One of the factors that touches Africa directly, helping to increase its rate of deforestation, is the spread of organisms such as hybrid maize. Hybrid organisms, apart from being less nutritious than native species, tend to dominate the environment by thawarting the growth and propagation of indigenous species. Africans need to rediscover the farming techniques and foods of their forefathers, which were more environment-friendly than those in wide use today. The crops they grew were also more nutritious than the ones we depend on today. Reducing malnutrition in Africa's child population requires that we radically rethink our agricultural practices. In the long term, doing so would force us to improve the quality of leadership on the continent. Currently, we tend to promote exploitative models of leadership, which idealize short-term gain and turn a blind eye to environmental degradation.)
One article illustrates my point: In the Democratic Republic of Congo, some chiefs were bribed with bags of sugar in exchange for allowing European transnationals to exploit virgin forests in the region. Whereas the value of the sugar, salt etc was estimated to be US $100, each tree was priced at $4000. This is just one example of the waste that goes on on the continent. Increasingly, Africa's indigenous resources are being exploited for the benefit other people, but Africans get the blame for their depletion. Ignorance, the stigmata of extreme poverty (e.g. childhood malnutrition which interferes with optimum intellectual development) and the despair associated with disease likely all contribute to impairing the judgment of those concerned.
This phenomenon is not new. It was apparent when the trans-Atlantic slave trade was at its height. It was also apparent during the era of forced colonial labour. Today, malnourished communities watch as their resources are taken over by those claiming to bring the benefits of globalization to the African village. Africans have a long way to go before they can stem the out-of-control exploitation of the continent's resources. They must wake up and take charge as the custodians of their resources.

  1. Alert over food security.” Peter Cummings Thatiah. Sunday, November 6th, 2005. East African Standard.
  2. Vast forests with trees each worth £4,000 sold for a few bags of sugar.” John Vidal. Wednesday, April 11th, 2007. The Guardian.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Let's get real about Africa's burden of malnutrition

In the past, I have received criticism for my work linking malnutrition to underdevelopment and social dysfunctionality. My critics have suggested that, by identifying problems in African society and highlighting the "stigmata of malnutrition," I am giving racists ammunition for their claims that Africans are genetically inferior to other races.

I beg to disagree with my critics. First, race is not a biological category. It is a socially constructed category. I have no essentialist arguments to make about Africans. What I do talk about is nutrition, which can be changed willfully by people who have choices. The point of my intervention is to raise awareness of the kind that will increase the number of nutritional choices available to most people.

No reasonable man or woman would dare to claim that the nutritional needs of most of Africa's children were being met. Conditions such as kwashiorkor, pellagra, rickets and others are commonplace in our communities. Any African who has lived in a community where having one meal a day is a luxury knows that children do not thrive under those circumstances. They do not thrive physically: Their bodies are stunted, and they succumb easily to diseases and parasites. The children do not thrive emotionally either: Hunger does not breed joy, nor is competition for limited resources in the home conducive to cooperation between family members. Families quickly become dysfunctional. They do not thrive intellectually: How can they, when their bodies are ailing and their brains do not receive the nutrients necessary for the growth, development, and optimal function of the brain? Furthermore, they may also be vulnerable to mental disease as teenagers and adults. Remember that mental disease is like any other form of disease: It thrives where there is chronic malnutrition, stress and trauma.

These are the challenges that the majority of Africans (who are poor) must wrestle with as they raise their children. Their children, in turn, grow into adults who are physically and psychologically marked by the deprivations they suffered. They may be small in stature, prone to falling ill, may have failed to reach their full intellectual capacity, and may experience undiagnosed depression and other forms of mental disease. All these factors can be attributed, not to their race, but to chronic lifelong malnutrition and the other difficulties they have endured. Anybody who takes the time to study the experiences of populations the world over that have historically been subjected to similar deprivations will notice similar problems.

Boer residents of British concentration camps in Southern Africa in the early 20th century endured such deprivations. Furthermore, prisoners in the Russian Gulag experienced similar forms of deprivation, as did Jewish people and other European minorities in Nazi-occupied Europe. The Kikuyu families who were put into concentration camps by the British during the so-called Mau Mau Emergency experienced similar deprivation. Those occupants of the Sahel and the Sahara who have lost their livelihoods to drought, and have had to seek refuge at relief centers decade after decade have experienced the same. A quick internet search will reveal that Asia and the Americas have similar stories to tell.

Whether chronic malnutrition results from poverty, natural catastrophes, wars or political repression and marginalization, it deprives entire communities of their potential. Thus, observations about diminished intellectual capacity and physical stamina, and vulnerability to physical and mental illness in such communities are a testament to the long reach of malnutrition. They are not essentialist claims about "the nature of a race."

If the nutritional needs of most of Africa's children were somehow to be met, then there would be no reason for us to be having this conversation. Africa would be a self-sufficient continent, confident in her dealings with itself and the rest of humanity. But we all know that that is not Africa's present reality. A country like Kenya can afford to pay its parliamentarians world class salaries, but the average person in the village or in the urban slums often struggles to get one square meal on to the table daily. The cycles of famine and drought, which have come to define Eastern Africa, are destined to continue, punctuated by emergency cabinet meetings to deliberate the hunger crises.

Educated Africans must take a step beyond their comfort zone. Instead of spending most of their energy trying to deny the deep-seated problems that plague our societies, they should look at the bigger picture. The underdevelopment burden due to malnutrition across sub-Saharan Africa is real. By not accepting that there is a problem, Africa's educated elites become part of the problem; they stand in the path of advocacy for better nutritional health. Once we accept that there is a problem, policy makers can be pressured to diversify agricultural production on the continent. Africa's educated elites need to shed the disdain they hold for the majority of their own people and, instead, start using their skills to offer transformative advocacy and support.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

An open letter to the African woman

Dear sisters,

I'm writing this letter because I have lost several nieces to childbirth in the recent past. This problem has been on the rise in my community, despite the fact that modern knowledge and medicine should have minimized it. The same is true for child malnutrition, which is rising, even as our adoption of modern nutritional and medical practices intensifies.

On September 20th, 2010, Ida Odinga, the wife of Kenya's Prime Minster devoted attention to the issue at the United Nations. Cited here is a Daily Nation article on the meeting: Malnutrition destroys young bodies and minds, harms education and work performance and ultimately damages communities. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Africa. We know the solutions to prevent this cycle, and it is urgent that we, as women and as leaders, set our goals in action.

 The article goes on to state that, “About 60 per cent of the world’s chronically hungry people are women. While undernutrition is a critical human development issue across the globe, it is especially prevalent in Africa, where one in four people suffer from malnutrition and 40 per cent are stunted.”

That these observations are being discussed at such forums is encouraging. However, we must try to understand this issue as a communal problem. Our friends from other continents and regions can only help us effectively if we make the effort to understand the problem ourselves and to develop homegrown solutions for it.  

My dear sisters, I am addressing you because women are often viewed as the custodians of a people’s culture. Empowered women help to build a thriving culture. In turn, a thriving culture helps to create empowered women.

Those of you lucky enough to be reading this have a moral obligation to empower yourselves, as do I. Then the choices we make, which will serve as examples to the majority, will be rooted in knowledge. The first step in empowering ourselves is to read about the subject of malnutrition. We should not assume, as we often do, that we know everything. I am a doctor, but it took me many years to learn what I know about malnutrition.

Heed these words as the fate of future generations may depend on what you know.

Yours respectfully,
Nelly M’mboga.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Contemporary Africa's implication in its own underdevelopment

In early April of 2010, I was hosted at a Public Library for the presentation of my book, A Healthy You: Tame Africa's Child Malnutrition. I was quite surprised at the interest the contents generated: I had assumed the book would primarily interest Africans, but the audience was predominantly American. To cut a long story short,the presentation went well, and gave me fresh food for thought.

One issue that came to the fore during the question and answer session was the poor utilization of quality protein maize (QPM) in the place of ordinary maize to tame childhood malnutrition on the continent. Other developing continents seemed to have made greater use of this resource than Africa. One participant in the audience hinted that the African establishment seemed to enjoy "victimhood." The person speculated that they preferred to exploit the sympathy that poverty, disease, the orphan burden, and violence attracted than to do the hard work that was necessary to undo institutional dependency on foreign aid.

Globally, research on QPM has been ongoing for many years. On the African continent, it is only in Ghana that  community studies have been documented. These studies have shown that Ghanaian children with Kwashiorkor fed on QPM recover. I have thoughtfully compared these with my own casual observations that Western Kenyan children, fed predominantly on a white hybrid maize staple diet continue to suffer from Kwashiorkor. The high infant mortality rate in Wetern Kenya is a crying shame, yet any possible solutions must come down to political will. When political will catches up with the reality on the ground the problem will receive the attention it deserves. The officials concerned with addressing malnutrition nationally then will be well advised to break down the national statistics for disease burden, poverty rates, and child mortality into regional figures. It will be important to identify the communities most afflicted and to apply the most intense programs within them.

Several reasons have been cited for the minimal undertaking of QPM research efforts on the African continent. One of these reasons is that many nations do not have the technical capacity to support such research. However, if Ghana can do it, why can't other African countries do it? Keep in mind that much of the hard scientific work that would facilitate such research has already been done. It seems more likely that the absence of such research efforts is attributable to the absence of coherent national development goals in many African nations. Such goals are rendered impossible because of the degree to which resources are commandeered for ethnic interests rather than national interests.

Leaders focus more on meeting the superficial needs of "their people" so that the tribal voting blocs on which they are dependent can get them back into office during the next political cycle. There really isn't much time or energy left to look into the more profound needs of their communities in the long-term, or to even think about other communities nationally. What this means is that ordinary Africans who want to see Africa change for the better have to learn to do the dirty work themselves, often without government support.

The African culture of poor leadership is bred in our homes. We must start taking responsibility for this culture: If there is something you can do to change Africa for the better, do it now, starting in your home. Don't just complain about "Africa's poor leadership." Leadership should start with you, dear reader. If you can't make the necessary sacrifice, why should you expect that somebody else will? Leadership arises from the people.

Monday, January 9, 2012

How Africa's maize turned white: a review

A while back, I read James McCann's book Maize and Grace: Africa's Encounter with a New World Crop, 1500-2000. Beautiful book! Any of you out there who can should grab a copy.

My favourite chapter in the book is "How Africa's maize turned white". It opens with the dramatic events that have characterized and shaped modern Africa, starting in South Africa i.e. mining, industrialisation, European settlement and male migrant labour. Maize is at the heart of all these events. However, whereas maize serves as the native South Africans' staple diet (in mealies and beer), for South Africa's commercial farmers, maize is a traded commodity used globally in industry and as cattle feed (and allied feeds).

According to McCann, native African maize (originally imported from South America during the Columbian era) expressed itself in very different ways on small peasant farms, displaying many colours. Up to the beginning of the 19th century, farmers could choose seed from their previous crop; they also had a variety of coloured maize varieties to choose from (e.g. Blue Flint, which they had by then christened "Blue Zulu"), but the arrival of hybrid maize changed all this. This was preceded by the discovery of diamonds at Kimberley in 1867, which led to an influx of migrant workers and capital, opening up the area for commerce and an increased demand for food. In the late 19th century White American Maize, which birthed the hybrid varieties that would revolutionize maize farming in both Southern and Eastern Africa, was imported. These new (hybrid) varieties were, in addition, high-yielding and utilized commercial fertilizer, making maize farming attractive to large commercial farmers.

While most of the world's maize crop is yellow, Africa produces mostly white maize. Chemically and genetically the 2 varieties are similar, although the yellow maize has a nutritional edge over the white maize because it contains the "carotene oil pigments responsible for the colour of yellow maize". Carotene is a precursor of Vitamin A. Most Africans prefer the white maize and refuse any other colour. In fact, when given a choice, they will pay more dearly for the white variety. This sharply contrasts with earlier Africans who selected "coloured maize ranging from crimson to blue to colourful mosaics of red, blue, yellow and orange." So how did this transformation occur?

This transformation is linked to the commercialization of maize that naturally followed increased demands for the crop. Maize became an exportable commodity which, for the purposes of the British starch and distillery industries, had to be homogeneously white. The South African crop could therefore compete on the international market, and get premium prices as a white homogeneous crop. In Southern Rhodesia, in an effort to force farmers to grow this homogeneous white crop, the cultivation of coloured varieties was outlawed. The flour mills also preferred the hybrid white maize because it was easier to mill, having a softer grain than the other varieties. One author mentioned in the book hints at another reason, divorced from the above two: "The real cause is the tendency of the native to imitate the white man, and that as the white man in Southern Africa eats only white mealie meal, the native thinks he ought to do so too". Contrary to this assertion, however, white South Africans had long identified maize as a "kaffir food".

McCann ends the chapter by reflecting on the political and economic forces inscribed by hybrid maize onto Southern Africa at the end of the 20th century: White farmers prospered while black farmers declined. Medical records from the 1920s and 1930s show that in colonial Basutoland "the incidence of pellagra and kwashiorkor increased in direct proportion to the rising percentage of maize in the diet".