Malnourishment in Rwanda

Yes, quite:

A combination of rising food prices, political instability and lack of technological progress in farming have meant that improvements in child nutrition here have proved hard to come by.

It\’s that last. The Green Revolution worked in wheat, rice, maize….but no one\’s really done it yet for the African staple crops. Cassava, sweet potatoes, even bananas (which in some areas provide a really surprising percentage of caloric intake).

That\’s what is actually needed: to continue Norman Bourlag\’s work and direct it to those African crops. And it is what Bourlag was doing towards the end of his life. It had to be provately funded though as, for some very strange and weird reason, none of the aid agencies were interested in funding the one thing that had already saved the odd few hundred million or billion lives.

We also get the flat out lie which is common in such pieces:

Cassava root, ground to a flour and cooked up as a doughy paste, is a traditional staple. It fills children up but has almost no nutritional value.

Bollocks. It is low in protein, this is true, not a huge amount of vitamins in it either. But it contains carbohydrates and yes, carbohydrates are indeed nutrition.

Its composition shows 60-65 percent moisture, 20-31 percent carbohydrate, 1-2 percent crude protein and a comparatively low content of vitamins and minerals. However, the roots are rich in calcium and vitamin C and contain a nutritionally significant quantity of thiamine, riboflavin and nicotinic acid.

Note those penultimate two vitamins: we tend to add them to cereals made from maize precisely because maize does not contain these essentials. Indeed, maize on its own is an insufficient diet: pellagra caused by an excessive reliance on incorrectly processed maize. Just as kwashiokor can be casued by an excessive reliance upon cassava….it\’s the protein lack there.

But can we please get this straight? Cassava may well be an insufficient source of the total nutrition required but it is not true to say that it \”has almost no nutritional value\”. Cassava plus eggs plus fruit would not be a particularly delicious diet but it would be sufficient. Carbohydrates, protein and vitamins…..

20 comments on “Malnourishment in Rwanda

  1. Simple minds want simple solutions. Preferably ones that do not blame aid agencies, any African government (except allies of the West) or Africans themselves.

    So some scientific mumbo jumbo about the diet of Africans as it relates to something none of us eat and have little familiarity with will work like a charm.

    If you said Africa had ample land, nourishing crops, low-ish levels of population density and plenty of other natural resources, people might stop to wonder about why there is still poverty and hunger. Those answers are either utterly unacceptable or too complicated to think about.

  2. Knowledge is sometimes the missing ingredient. A pharmacist friend of mine spent a couple of years in rural Ghana, where she ran a clinic for mothers and children. A small but significant minority of the children had health problems due to lack of protein. The problem was that, although eggs were plentiful, the mothers didn’t realise that eggs were a good food for children. As soon as eggs were added to the diet, the problems disappeared.

  3. You can get your complete daily nutritional requirements from two glasses of milk, one glass of orange juice and 47 pints of Guinness. Clearly the Irish government is failing in its obligation to help the Third World.

  4. Matthew L – “You can get your complete daily nutritional requirements from two glasses of milk, one glass of orange juice and 47 pints of Guinness. Clearly the Irish government is failing in its obligation to help the Third World.”

    They have oranges in Ireland? Damn. We should never have granted independence.

    But I pledge to donate to any programme that involves solving the malnutrition problems of the Third World with Guinness. Bloody Bob bloody Geldorf. Sitting on the right solution all that time and instead of getting on with it, he insisted on wittering away with all those luvvies.

  5. Geldof! I forgot he was Irish, the bloody hypocrite. And Bono too – every pint of Guinness drunk at a U2 concert after party is diluted 1/47th by the tears of a starving child.

  6. Hey, guys, (and you, too, Julia),

    Quite some years ago, I was made aware that huge numbers of folk in black (sub-saharan) Africa quite literally rely on beer as their chief dietary staple (typically carried about in buckets
    as in “Frankie wen’ down to de conuh–jess fo’ a bucket o’ beah. She said, Mr. Bahtendah, has mah lovin’ Johnny been heah? He is my man–he would’n do me no wrong.”

    My good friend Harry Berg described that dietary custom of the “civilized” blacks that inhabited the squalid shantytown surrounding the town which was the capital of what was then Rhodesia. And, though warned of the threat of guerillas, he walked the very great distance from there to another large town, Bulawayo, entirely through the jungle, without mishap of any kind. In fact, the numerous black tribesmen he met along the way were extraordianrily hospitable, despite knowing no English whatsoever–many had, apparently, never even seen a white man before. They lived mostly as hunter-gatherers, apparently, though he frequently saw small tended plots and various domesticated animals.
    These folk were obviously much healthier than the townsfolk and, in almost every village he encountered, not only offered him food and a place to sleep in rude but clean homes (usually made of dung) but, on his departure, insisted on accompanying him to the next village.

    Harry’s gone some 20 years now. He was his father’s only son and had one son, who lives in a nearby town (West Chester, PA). That son. a schoolteacher, also had one child–a son. And that son is the guy whom Al-Zawahiri captured (in Iraq, where he was seeking opportunity in his business of installing transmission towers) and
    decapitated.

    Harry’s colorful life (and fascinating stories of his experiences as a dealer in military surplus) were an inspiration to me in going into the very same business and were even of material value in several of my very best deals. If I ever write a book, he’ll be in it.

  7. That makes perfect sense, Gene. Beer is essentially fermented, strained grain. The fermentation converts a small percentage of the sugar to alcohol, so if you don’t strain it you keep most of the nutritional goodness. What’s left over from making beer is even used as a nutritional supplement – Marmite, for instance.

    I believe African native beer is usually made from millet and not strained, so it’s more like a mildly alcoholic gruel than the lager most people picture when they think of beer.

  8. even bananas (which in some areas provide a really surprising percentage of caloric intake)

    In Nigeria they eat a lot of fried plantains, which to me are pretty much bananas.

    But I pledge to donate to any programme that involves solving the malnutrition problems of the Third World with Guinness.

    We have a Guiness brewery here in Lagos, I think the only one outside Europe. Although I have noticed that the Nigerians don’t drink an awful lot of alcohol.

  9. Reading the article, it’s strikes that Guardian writers may be ignorant but it doesn’t prevent them expanding the breadth of their ignorance. In this case on third-world diets.
    The Judge, judicially, touches on the problem above.

    Girlfriend I had was from Sierra Leone (Lovely lass but a bit hard to locate in a darkened room unless you knew good jokes). She grew up in Camden but, even so, she was a nightmare to feed. Left to herself she’d default to living on chicken & rice. Maybe a bit of plain salad. She didn’t like much else. Wouldn’t experiment. Regular purgatory was going round Mum’s for dinner. Woman only cooked one thing. Beef stew with dried fish mixed in, bones an’ all & boiled rice. Pour chilli sauce over to liven it up. Incredibly vile but you have to go through the motions don’t you? (I just re-read that last sentence & yes, you can read it either way)
    Third world peasants have limited diets, which is probably why they’re third world peasants. Current squeeze is from a Colombian shanty town. La C’s not much better. She won’t eat fish so it’s what’s left of the basic Mediterranean plus banana fritters & a heavy emphasis on grilled meat.
    Yesterday she was absent so I was eating with the Russians. There’s nothing they serve, she could stomach. There was a dish on the table that might give a clue to what’s going on. Looks like cake with a topping of raspberry icing. I reckon I could give this to a Brit with a good chance of getting them to chuck up on it. It contains fish & the colour’s beetroot. All the wrong signals.
    From the article:
    “….something must be done”
    Well good luck sunshine.
    African villager lives on cassava because African villager likes cassava. Maybe a bit of banana or maize, beef or monkey if it’s about. Widening his diet’s difficult because he doesn’t regard the alternatives a food. There’s nothing in the look, smell or taste to tell him it is. Try getting a Brit to eat raw fish.
    Which reminds me, La C’s still absent & I’m having sushi.

  10. Great to see you talking some sense about such a crucial issue. Cassava is also a major part of the diet in Brazil, where I have seen it grow. In the right climate and soil, you can get 3/4 crops a year. Above ground you get a single trunk 4 foot high growing. The next crop comes from chopping this trunk up into foot long sticks and planting horizontally in the ground. Nothing fancy at all.

  11. Gene Berman – “Quite some years ago, I was made aware that huge numbers of folk in black (sub-saharan) Africa quite literally rely on beer as their chief dietary staple”

    I have lived among primitive peoples who rely on beer as their main source of carbohydrates. Australians in the Northern Territory, for instance, are famous for this. I wonder about some Germans and Czechs as well. Seriously, apart from some pieces of sliced white bread (which is not bad in Australia for some reason), no carb intake at all. Not even chips except on special occasions.

    “Harry’s colorful life (and fascinating stories of his experiences as a dealer in military surplus) were an inspiration to me in going into the very same business and were even of material value in several of my very best deals.”

    You’re selling military surplus these days?

    13Tim Newman – “We have a Guiness brewery here in Lagos, I think the only one outside Europe. Although I have noticed that the Nigerians don’t drink an awful lot of alcohol.”

    I have drunk Guinness that said it was the product of Malaysia. I didn’t think it tasted the same but perhaps I am becoming a beer snob.

    14bloke in spain – “She grew up in Camden but, even so, she was a nightmare to feed. Left to herself she’d default to living on chicken & rice. Maybe a bit of plain salad.”

    I know a person who lived on bread and jam for several years as a teen. Just bread and jam. When I expressed doubt that anyone could survive on this diet, his mother assured me it was true. He was probably sneaking some salad on the side. But not a peasant. Not African either.

    “Third world peasants have limited diets, which is probably why they’re third world peasants.”

    Does that apply to Indian or Chinese Third World peasants? Because it is not really my experience.

  12. SMFS:

    I’ve been selling military surplus for over 45 years, 42+ on my own. Mostly, it’s been small components: electronic, optical, etc., along with a variety of lab and other scientific equipment and most frequently to other, more specialized dealers. Dealing frequently with large lots with many “line items” in varying quantities, one will accumulate a great many “leftovers”–and that’s what I’ve been selling for almost 10 years now.
    I have no “place of business,” no website, no employees, no “company name” (do business under my own name), no “business cards,” make no sales calls either by phone or in person. All RFQs and sales are generated through a website (to which I subscribe) used worlwide by buyers seeking just such items (by part number). About 20% of the inquiries come from foreign entities and I answer them all: “Sorry, I don’t export” (I couldn’t deal with paperwork associated with restrictions and regulations of various sorts.)

    A fair amount of my sales are to the military itself. Sometimes they’re onsey-twosey deals with a base or a ship but more frequently, it’ll be on competitive bid directly to the Dept. of Defense.

    All in all, it’s a rut I’ve worn myself into.

  13. Gene Berman – “I’ve been selling military surplus for over 45 years, 42+ on my own.”

    That sounds both surprising and an interesting profession. Hard to get into? I guess we have an unusual group of people here.

    Thanks for letting us know.

  14. SMFS@16
    Not sure if your not confusing cuisine with diet there although the Chinese do seems to regard diet as…well…pretty well anything.
    But it’s really economics isn’t it? Poor people have enough problems producing the staples so they don’t have much in the way of surpluses to trade. With little trade they’re limited to what they can produce themselves.
    There’s little doubt that its the poorer immigrants to the west who are less likely to widen their diet. Carry on eating what they were brought up on. It’s even true in the UK with our own supposed poor. Why nutritionists are always banging on about the diets of sections of the community. It’s not even as if they can’t afford to eat a healthier diet. The stuff’s in the shops & it’d be cheaper than stodge & takeaways. Just don’t do it.

  15. bloke:

    Back in the late ’60s, I had a secretary–a very capable and intelligent gal with an obviously good (high school) education.

    She had been raised on a farm in “upstate” (central-north) New York and, throughout her life had eaten almost nothing that hadn’t been raised on their farm. Boiled potatoes, boiled cabbage, boiled beans of several varieties, and (mostly boiled) meat and chicken.

    She’d married a boy raised on an adjoining farm with an almost identical dietary history (and said that she couldn’t even remember that her experience was in any way remarkable in comparison to school classmates).

    Her husband was or became employed by a “discount”-type departmernt-store chain and rose to manager. And, it being a chain operation, his promotion was a transfer to manage a larger
    store in a semi-urban area (NJ suburbs of Philadelphia), where she became employed.

    At the time i was acquainted with her, she’d long been a resident of the area, had grown children, and had become accustomed to at least a more normal variety of fare and was at least a more typical patron of various restaurants But it had taken her (and her husband) quite some time to break the habit of their accustomed monotony; she remembered they’d lived in the area for nearly a year before trying something different:
    a hamburger (and fries) from McDonald’s.

    I’m of the half-baked opinion that some of these
    lifestyles and choices, perhaps most easily explicable as due to economic circumstances, are substantially genetically influenced. BUt that’s “a whole ‘nuther story.”

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