In the United States we’re constantly worried about getting fat. No doubt, America has an issue with obesity, but in much of Zambia it’s a different concern all together: being underweight.
|Children's diets throughout Zambia often suffer from malnutrition.|
Step into a village and the tell tale signs of hunger and malnourishment leap right into sight: big, bloated bellies; small arms with little in the way of muscle mass; a red tint to the eyes. Without even seeing what is being eaten it is possible to know that not much is on the nightly dinner plates.
|Locally harvested fish provide great sources of protein.|
Protein should be coming from meat, but when meat is a rarity and a luxury in most meals then protein consumption is often non-existent. There are crops like beans and peanuts that can provide needed protein, but they tend to not be on the menu due to limited production – not only is corn the staple food here, but it's also the main cash crop. Far more effort is put into growing corn than any other crop, even when malnutrition and hunger are results.
Being fat is thought of as something to strive for as it indicates that a person doesn’t have to do the physical labor that most engage in. They don’t have to work in the fields; instead they’re at home eating “bwana” meals of chicken and beef and not doing much else. Sometimes even carrying a toothpick is used as an indicator of wealth, as it shows that someone needs to pick the sinews and gristle of meat out of their teeth.
It was hard to get used to villagers always telling me how fat I looked when I would come back from the village after being gone for some time, but the truth is I had gained weight – going to Zambia’s capital was about the only place I could gorge myself on pizza, pasta, and other more Western dishes. There comments weren’t meant as criticism but rather as a way of saying I looked healthy.
There are increasing amounts of data that are pointing to malnutrition during the first three years as having lifelong physical and mental consequences for children - meaning even if malnutrition is reigned in and reduced today the effects may last a lifetime. Many of the issues that deal with malnutrition could be eased through diverse diets and probably even less reliance on corn as the main food, but that isn't an easy switch to make. That would require changing mass amounts of people's behavior, current government policies that promote the growing of corn on massive scales, and even access to different crop seeds, which is a serious issue for farmers and their families here. Sadly, it seems malnutrition in Zambia is going to continue being a part of life for some time longer.
|Small upper arms and bloated bellies constantly identify the victims of malnutrition.|