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.