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Culture, the albatross perpetuating stunting and malnutrition

By Lindiwe Majele Sibanda
Posted on Wednesday, 13 August 2014 14:51

When we speak about Italian, French, British or Zimbabwean cuisine, we are talking about more than spices; we are talking about culture. If food signifies culture, then so does agriculture. As Massimo Montanari said, “everything having to do with food—its capture, cultivation, preparation, and consumption—represent a cultural act.”

we need to shift the way people think about food so it’s not simply a question of quantity, but of quality

Unfortunately, culture can sometimes trump—or lag far behind—what science and research tell us about health. The gap in Africa’s varied cultural understanding of food and the realities of a healthy diet is present across social and economic classes. Regardless of education, income, and geography, people across Africa are paying the consequences.

Despite the many years of financial resources devoted to modernising smallholder African agriculture and increasing the yields of staple crops such as maize, rice and small grains, malnutrition is on the rise. And the costs from malnutrition last a lifetime.

So why, despite growing more food, aren’t people becoming healthier? It’s our cultural understanding of food.

For example, growing up in my Zulu culture, men receive more and better quality food than women and children. Chicken and eggs are reserved for male members of the family. It is believed that pregnant women who eat eggs give birth to bald children and women who eat chicken become unstable in married life.

There is also a misconception that quality and quantity of food are synonymous, so meals with poor nutrition are regarded as just as good as a well-balanced meal. In my research and in traveling across the continent, I’ve found that cultures in Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, and Nigeria also perpetuate similar beliefs.

All of these myths contribute to malnutrition, which also leads to an increase in stunted growth in children. Sadly, current evidence shows that malnutrition is most severe in smallholder farm families, where food is produced and yet diverse and healthy diets are constrained.

Stunting is especially troubling. It is not just about being the proper size; it also affects human brain development. Stunting from malnutrition begins in the womb and is irreversible. In the most extreme cases, it can cause premature death later in life because vital organs never fully develop during childhood.

More than 90% of the world’s 162 million stunted children live in Africa and Asia, with 36% of children in Africa affected. The number is growing.

Unfortunately, on a continent where many cultures still prioritize feeding men with the best available food, women and children are getting the least both in terms of quantity and quality. And when people are stunted, so is our potential for growth and development as communities, countries and a continent.

Stunting and obesity

Recently, however, attention has been drawn to obesity, another great irony of culture and unexpected consequence of malnutrition.

Surprisingly, adults are more likely to be overweight or obese in places where malnutrition in children is high. The stunting caused by malnutrition leads to obesity because those who were stunted are later exposed to an abundance of food and gain weight.

According to recent research released by GlaxoSmithKline, 61 percent of the population in South Africa are obese, a phenomenon that is becoming a trend in most of sub-Saharan Africa. Here is where culture comes back into play in this threat to our health: “chubby” has long been a cultural sign of beauty and a prosperous family. People strive to overeat so they’re not labelled as poor.

The same GlaxoSmithKline study on obesity found that 78 percent of obese people considered themselves healthy. In most cases, what they eat are empty calories, fat laden fast foods and sugar-laced fizzy drinks which are perceived to be a demonstration of development and prosperity.

This means that countries still wrecked by malnutrition, as well as infectious diseases such as malaria and HIV/AIDS, are facing a battery of health problems such as diabetes and heart disease.

If we are to tackle these paradoxical challenges of malnutrition, stunting and obesity, we need to start a change in our cultural views of food and agriculture. Across cultures, we must start with broad education and food security policies to ensure that all in a household have healthy diets. Dispelling myths about gender differences in diet is essential.

Similarly, we need to shift the way people think about food so it’s not simply a question of quantity, but of quality. Nutritional content must trump caloric intake. For many African families today, diets consisting of regional staples such as maize meal porridge, rice and cassava account for about 80 percent of breakfast, lunch and dinner. We must focus on diversity in diet.

Second, we need to empower African women, particularly in farm families, to have a say in dietary choices—and men must be open to changes in diet as well. Research has shown that there is often significant variation in caloric intake among household members; traditionally, it’s been thought that all males, regardless of age and size, need more food than women. So even in homes with high overall food consumption, individuals may be malnourished.

For many years, the problem of under-nutrition has been viewed as extrinsic to the agriculture sector. We know now that it is so much more. What happens in the kitchen and home is as important as what is happening in the farm. Today, we face the danger that many countries in Africa have become breeding grounds for kids who will become adults with reduced cognitive functions and limited intellectual capabilities.

Many African cultural beliefs have become a burden that threatens our future and obscures the simple solutions that will make us healthier and more productive. We must break the inter-generational cycle of malnutrition and we will only do this by tackling, head on, the cultural myths that have stunted Africa’s people and economies.

Lindiwe Majele Sibanda is CEO and Head of Diplomatic Mission for the Food, Agriculture Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) and is an Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow.

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