Sunday, October 26, 2014

Under Weight and Malnourished


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.
Malnutrition and hunger are very serious and real issues in the rural communities of Zambia.  Much of Zambia’s estimated 14 million people are subsistence farmers that make their livelihoods from farming only a few acres of crops each year.  That crop has to nourish themselves and their families for the entire year.  When crops fail or the production was less than anticipated then hunger often comes knocking on the door. 

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.
Specifically, protein and Vitamin A are lacking in villagers’ diets.  Protein as we know helps with muscle growth and , while Vitamin A helps both adults and children to have stronger immune systems and keep organs working properly. 

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.
A rural corn depot where local farmers bring their corn to sell.


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.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Where Beef Is King

Clanking.  The bells around the necks of the cows moving past are clanking together and behind them are what?  More cows.  Clank, clank, clank.  I'm now in Southern Province for my last year and this is a common sound: the clanking of cow bells.
The gray cow is a good example of the Tonga breed of cow.  Often found throughout Southern Province it provides better resistance to disease and pests as compared to other outside breeds.
Like much of the semi-arid and arid ranges across our planet livestock production reigns as the predominate way of making a living.  The land is too nutrient poor and scarce of water for crop production to take off in any meaningful way, so people have adapted and taken to lifestyles which promote goats and cows.  This is where the Tonga tribe lives - in Southern Province: a dry, dusty place.

Southern Province is largely made up and populated by the Tonga tribe.  A fairly proud people that historically didn't take a lot of crap from the other tribes.  For them the cow is life.  It's a way of judging a man's worth, deciding your own sense of pride, and even a way of storing money.  Cows - and livestock in general throughout the developing world - act as village banks and insurance policies for villagers.  Need money for your kids' school fees?  A sudden illness?  Have that itch to put a lot on red?  Well, it's easy enough sell a cow or two and get that much needed cash.
Southern Province for much of the year is dry place.  Typically cows have to be given water twice a day if there aren't any open sources of water nearby.
Through my very rough and primitive research I've found that a cow is worth about $800 a head (although sometimes much more), and when most families have a few cows (it isn't unheard of to come across a family with over 100) that can add up to a lot of money for a rainy day.

With the cows come cow pies, flies, the previously mentioned bells, and a tradition of herding these beasts.

The local variety is simply called the Tonga cow.  Original, eh?  The breed has been raised to provide increased resistance to the region's hardships: occasional droughts, pests, children constantly throwing rocks.  Tonga cows are good, but if you want a good quality cow in Zambia's Southern Province then you should go for the Tonga-Brahman hybrid.

Brahman cows hail from the United States, but began with original stock from India.  This cow has thicker skin which helps to prevent disease transmission from insects and the meat is a superior quality - a top dollar kind of thing.
With its roots hailing from India, Brahman cattle were brought to the United States, Brazil, Australia, and numerous other countries for meat production.
The Tonga-Brahman hybrid costs more money to initially buy, but the payoff in it's ease of maintenance and better price per pound of meat makes it the envy of ever Tonga herder's eye. 

Tongas are so attached to their cows that it actually acts as an Achilles heal in that so much of their livelihoods are wrapped up in one thing that any shock or stress to their cow herds can have a lasting ripple effect.
It's not an uncommon sight to see cows wandering near or even through a family's compound, like the photo here shows.  You would expect a dog or a cat to be a part of a family, but here the Tongas' cows are like members as well.
For example, in 2009 Zambia's Southern and Western Provinces were drenched in rainfall causing massive flooding throughout the region.  Fearing for their cows lives the Tongas pushed their cows into massive herds and located them atop the higher regions of the area to escape the flooding.  Little did they know some of their cows were infected with a devastating lung disease called contagious bovine pleuropneumonia (CBP).  Once CBP started to spread it went like fire through tinder.  In a matter of months 90% of the region's cows were killed by the disease or by a government supported culling.  The Tongas livelihoods had been reduced by 90% and now that village insurance policy was nearly negligible.  A truly sad story, but an important one to keep in mind as extreme weather events are taking hold and becoming more and more common.
This picture is from my old village in North-Western Province.  These two cows were two of about 20 that we had in the area.  Access to cows coupled with the price of buying a cow didn't allow many of my community members to have animals.
For now the cow herds have recovered, partially if not fully, and the cow will remain Southern Province's most prized possession.  
Me trying to run the plow.  It was incredibly hard.  I did not enjoy.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Finding Similar Opportunities At Home

I went home to Michigan in July for a month of very needed vacation / down time, and I'll admit that I struggled the first week or so to really find my place in the United States.  I was happy to be there and reunite with family, friends, my culture and nation, but it took some time getting used to.

Gardening 365 strives to teach food security through do-it-yourself trainings, but also to open a stream of revenue generation for the Leila Arboretum Society through horticulture.  Vegetables grown in this green house are sold in local farmers markets, as well as being sold to local restaurants.
A lot of people asked me how Zambia was, how were things in Africa, did I have ebola, and so on and so forth.  But, I quickly realized that while some were genuinely interested, most just weren't sure what to ask me about.  And I couldn't really blame them... there seemed to be a large disconnect between my daily life and what I work on here in Zambia and what people's lives back home consisted of.  Usually I can talk to nearly anyone, but I even feel silent at times in asking about their lives.

Some of the Gardening 365 team working in their green house to sort, package, and then ship some fresh produce.
However, it all changed to a certain degree when I was lucky enough to be invited to the Leila Arboretum Society's urban farm for a brief tour.  In these small gardens off Michigan Avenue I found a small part of Battle Creek that resembled my Zambian work and interests.  The search was over.

A range of colored peppers are pictured here.  Battle Creek, like many other places throughout the United Staets is home to "food deserts."  These are places where people can't find fresh produce, instead they're forced to opt for processed foods.
I was amazed at the kind of work they were doing there - in fact, they were doing largely the same kind of work that I have been working on here in Zambia for the last 2.5 years: food security programs.  Battle Creek, like so many other cities across the nation is plagued by "food deserts."  These are areas where finding an apple, a tomato, or ever an ear of sweet corn is nearly impossible because of price or availability, but finding a Twix bar or bottle of Mountain Dew only requires you leave your house and enter a convenience store.  It's a real problem that's leading to further gains in our population's desperate race to become twice the size of a normal humans.

Through community engagement, trainings, and actual production / growing the Leila Arboretum's Gardening 365 program is ensuring food security for those willing to learn throughout the Battle Creek area one small garden at a time.

The Gardening 365 demonstration garden is full of all kinds of vegetables that with a little bit of practice any local gardener could easily produce at their own home.
Not unlike here in Zambia, people in Michigan also love their tomatoes.  Here a hybrid variety is growing in the demonstration garden.  Efforts like that of the Leila Arboretum Society's go a long way in helping community members live healthier lives.
It made me really happy to consider that even when my time here in the Peace Corps is complete I'll have opportunities to continue working on similar projects to what my time here has been focused on.  It will also help with being back home, fitting back into my own country and avoiding those awkward moments when I catch myself staring at other Americans and thinking, "I have no idea what to say... this would never come up in Zambia."

The minds and muscle behind Gardening 365: Brett, Kathy, and Mike