Who among us remembers the Joe Corrie poem Eat More about the Depression-era in Europe and the U.S.? For those of you who did not have the benefit of reading such a poem when they were in school or elsewhere, here it is:
‘Eat more fruit!’ the slogans say,
‘More fish, more beef, more bread!’
But I’m on Unemployment pay.
My third year now, and wed.
And so I wonder when I’ll see
The slogan when I pass,
The only one that would suit me-
‘Eat More Bloody Grass!’
What a comment about the insensitivity of the Haves to the Have-Nots. In the context of Europe and the U.S., the nutritious foods they were being told to eat were way beyond the reach of the working poor who were unable to find a job or, if they did find a job or some petty business, it was insufficient to eat correctly, let alone the advice of the ‘well-meaning’ nutritionists.
Who is the messenger?
But isn’t that always the way of our ‘well-meaning’ messengers? Who writes these uplifting messages? Usually, the educated, the better-off, the older, and often the men.
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And who are they meant for? Usually, the less educated, the poorer, the younger, and often the women or the girls.
What do the messengers know about the lives of the messaged? To what extent are the messages relevant to the recipients’ lives? I remember all the messages when HIV and AIDS dominated our attention.
So many messages tell people how to behave without considering the lives of the people being messaged or whether such messages are realistic. No wonder a top-level commission of SADC commented that for the majority of adolescent girls, the ABC messages were just not realistic.
In the end, I was allergic to the word tamaa because it was always used to demonise girls. If a girl has not eaten and then she is offered food, that is not tamaa but njaa.
It was the one offering food for sex who was the one with tamaa, but he never got the blame. Even the teacher who punished a girl for refusing him for months before she gave in was never seen as the one with tamaa, but the girl was characterised as being Mbeya beans because they are quickly cooked!
Or the girl aged 12, who was told that she had to bring money in the evening or she would not be given any food. I am not making these stories up.
They were real stories from girls we talked to when I was responsible for young people and HIV. And these stories could be multiplied hundreds or thousands of times.
But more of that another time. My memories were pricked when reading about the ‘well-meaning’ advice that the government has thoughtfully prepared for us. Of course, such advice is relevant for those who have the means to choose.
Mango or beer?
Yes, I can choose a mango over a beer. Many irresponsible people damage their health because of poor nutrition choices. But telling everyone they should eat more fruits and vegetables without considering their conditions takes us back to the Corrie poem.
When the Tanzania Food and Nutrition Centre, in collaboration with UNICEF, began a big drive to reduce malnutrition in the 1980s, they did not only talk about eating more and better. They recognised that malnutrition was a manifestation of a deeper problem.
At the surface level, there was also a problem of insufficient food intake and disease. These, too, affected each other. Lack of food led to more disease, and disease led to less production and consumption of food. Both had to be addressed.
But that was not the whole story. UNICEF identified the underlying causes of the above: inadequate access to food, inadequate care for women and children, lousy health services, and an unhealthy environment.
These all interacted while also contributing to inadequate food intake and disease. For example, if crops failed, they received inferior prices for their produce, or they had no money, how could we expect them to have adequate food?
Similarly, if all the crops belong to the man in the household, who then sells them off for his benefit, how can the women and children have adequate access to food? Gender was a major issue, not forgetting the multiple tasks many women face.
During the aborted constitutional consultations of that time, women in one area we worked demanded that rural women should also be given maternity leave as even the next day after giving birth, their husbands expected them to take their buckets and walk the necessary kilometres to fetch water.
Not forgetting the women – and sometimes men– who spend all the time in the shambas to try and make ends meet, leaving their children in the care of an older sister who was expected to play the role of cook and mother.
Yet these, too, were insufficient explanations for the malnutrition crisis. There was and is a need to address the fundamental causes: the economic system, access to markets, price of crops, access to livelihoods, budget allocations, the political system, patriarchy, etc.
If these are not transformed to become pro-people rather than pro-leaders, then all the rest is blah blah blah. To what extent have we addressed any of these? I have difficulty listening to someone standing beside a V8 telling me how to eat better.
Today, apart from the nutrition of babies and their mothers, one neglected area is adolescent nutrition, even more so now that primary education is available up to lower secondary school.
Adolescence is a crucial period for nutrition, as children grow very fast and their bodies change. So they need more food and more nutritious food.
But how many schools provide food for their students? And what kind of food? Many children leave home early, having eaten little or nothing, and are expected to spend the whole day without food before returning to their resource-poor homes.
Worse still, at least a third of adolescent girls then get pregnant, inside as well as outside marriage, and thus require even greater access to nutritious food to feed themselves and the baby growing inside them.
Is this not one of the major causes of the about 30 per cent of stunting in our children, stunting which affects not only their physical but also mental growth? What a vicious circle!
Richard Mabala is an educator, poet, and author. He is available at email@example.com or on X (Twitter) as @MabalaMakengeza. These are the writer’s own opinions, and they do not necessarily represent the viewpoint of The Chanzo. Do you want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at firstname.lastname@example.org for further inquiries.