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.

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