“The quantities of meat our men devour is quite astounding. They boil as much as their pots will hold, and eat till it becomes physically impossible for them to stow away any more…”
In a previous post – ‘Cuisines and Crops of Africa, 19th Century – The Limits of Pastoralism as a Lifestyle’ – The explorer Speke described the eating and fasting habits of Somali pastoralists, whose ‘fast-feast’ style of eating was seen to be directly linked to their spartan lifestyle.
Similar extremes of eating are also described by Livingstone in the Zambezi river basin of south-central Africa, where he traveled in the mid-19th. Century, (Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa) – sections quoted below.
Such fast-feast eating patterns can still be found in Africa, either on a seasonal basis or directly linked to crop failures or other disasters. That is because subsistence farmers are generally so closely dependent upon their annual crop harvests for their daily food that crop failure or fighting can spell malnutrition for part of the year.
As well, even during good years, family consumption during the dry season may be limited to starches such as yams, sweet potatoes, and manioc with a corresponding lack of fresh vegetables or fruits. Increasingly, too, because of war, displacement and other problems, mothers here feed their weaning infants porridge made of manioc, which is a recipe for nutritional problems. The results commonly lead to nutritional diseases, the two most common forms found throughout the third world being marasmus and kwashiorkor.
Marasmus is associated with moderate to severe protein-energy deficiency that leads to extreme muscle and tissue wasting; ‘Voracious eating’, of the type described below by Livingstone, is often associated with marasmus.
Kwashiorkor is a more complicated nutritional disease that includes deficiencies in micronutrients, in addition to protein and energy deficiencies. This is the form most commonly see here in Burundi, especially during the lean months and, in the 1990’s, during the war years in refugee and displacement camps:
These are not recent problems. Colonial records mention the same symptoms, which were often confused with venereal diseases, because causes and symptoms of nutritional diseases can be similar and this was not well understood until the last few decades.
To help compensate for extremes of food availability, what we would call ‘binge eating’ has been commonly practiced during the period of ample food supplies, which can result in stored body fat to be used during the dry season ‘fasting’ period. Unfortunately, small children are unable to process and store body fat in the same way as adults and thus are most vulnerable to these nutritional diseases.
Binge eating, often associated with long periods of lean findings, was perhaps most noticeably seen amongst the Khoi hunter-gathers of southern Africa, where the stored fat in the buttocks and stomach area on women caused curiosity – and some alarm – amongst colonial explorers:
It is within this context that the following eating practices in south-central Africa, described in 1864 by Livingston, can be best understood. In addition, as he is talking about the consumption of an elephant – as much as possible of the beast must be eaten, because in a tropical climate the meat will putrefy in a very short period of time:
The quantities of meat our men devour is quite astounding. They boil as much as their pots will hold, and eat till it becomes physically impossible for them to stow away any more.
An uproarious dance follows, accompanied with stentorian song; and as soon as they have shaken their first course down, and washed off the sweat and dust of the after performance, they go to work to roast more.
A short snatch of sleep succeeds, and they are up and at it again; all night long it is boil and eat, roast and devour, with a few brief interludes of sleep.
Like other carnivora, these men can endure hunger for a much longer period than the mere porridge-eating tribes.
Our men can cook meat as well as any reasonable traveller could desire; and, boiled in earthen pots, like Indian chatties, it tastes much better than when cooked in iron ones.
Cynthia Bertelsen has also put up an excellent blog touching on some of these issues and is well worth a read: Hunger, Starvation, Famine and the Sweep of Human History.
I would also like to mention that today’s blog was in part inspired by information received yesterday from IRIN (Integrated Regional Information Networks ) about recent breakthroughs in addressing these serious problems:
NAIROBI, 9 November (IRIN) – Some of the most widespread forms of malnutrition can best be reduced by delivering micronutrients and fortifying food in new, cost-effective ways, in combination with community outreach work, experts have said.
Approaches could range from the obvious – adding iron to flour – to the novel, such as vitamin-enriched chewing gum, a Nairobi conference heard.
Vitamin A, iron and iodine are the most important micronutrients in global public health terms, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), particularly for children and pregnant women in poor countries.
Vitamin A deficiency affects more than half of all countries, especially in Africa and Southeast Asia, and it is “especially important where under-five mortality is high,” Sue Horton, a malnutrition economist, told the conference.
The conference on nutrition, held in Nairobi on 3 November, was organized by Danish think-tank The Copenhagen Consensus Center (CCC).
CCC has ranked micronutrient supplements as a top development priority following findings of a study it commissioned in 2008 to identify the best ways to spend aid and development money.
Provision of Vitamin A, it added, to children aged six months to five years every four to six months could reduce mortality by 23 percent…
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- Palm Oil Family Production in Congo (lokoleyacongo.wordpress.com)
- Plantains and Bananas: “The Staff of Savage Life” (dianabuja.wordpress.com)
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- Cuisines and Crops of Africa, 19th Century – Zambezi River Watershed in Southern Africa (dianabuja.wordpress.com)
- Trading States of the Congo River Basin during the19th-century in Africa (egrejeen.wordpress.com)