Monday, January 30, 2012

Let's get real about Africa's burden of malnutrition
In the past, I have received criticism for my work linking malnutrition to underdevelopment and social dysfunctionality. My critics have suggested that, by identifying problems in African society and highlighting the "stigmata of malnutrition," I am giving racists ammunition for their claims that Africans are genetically inferior to other races.

I beg to disagree with my critics. First, race is not a biological category. It is a socially constructed category. I have no essentialist arguments to make about Africans. What I do talk about is nutrition, which can be changed willfully by people who have choices. The point of my intervention is to raise awareness of the kind that will increase the number of nutritional choices available to most people.

No reasonable man or woman would dare to claim that the nutritional needs of most of Africa's children were being met. Conditions such as kwashiorkor, pellagra, rickets and others are commonplace in our communities. Any African who has lived in a community where having one meal a day is a luxury knows that children do not thrive under those circumstances. They do not thrive physically: Their bodies are stunted, and they succumb easily to diseases and parasites. The children do not thrive emotionally either: Hunger does not breed joy, nor is competition for limited resources in the home conducive to cooperation between family members. Families quickly become dysfunctional. They do not thrive intellectually: How can they, when their bodies are ailing and their brains do not receive the nutrients necessary for the growth, development, and optimal function of the brain? Furthermore, they may also be vulnerable to mental disease as teenagers and adults. Remember that mental disease is like any other form of disease: It thrives where there is chronic malnutrition, stress and trauma.

These are the challenges that the majority of Africans (who are poor) must wrestle with as they raise their children. Their children, in turn, grow into adults who are physically and psychologically marked by the deprivations they suffered. They may be small in stature, prone to falling ill, may have failed to reach their full intellectual capacity, and may experience undiagnosed depression and other forms of mental disease. All these factors can be attributed, not to their race, but to chronic lifelong malnutrition and the other difficulties they have endured. Anybody who takes the time to study the experiences of populations the world over that have historically been subjected to similar deprivations will notice similar problems.

Boer residents of British concentration camps in Southern Africa in the early 20th century endured such deprivations. Furthermore, prisoners in the Russian Gulag experienced similar forms of deprivation, as did Jewish people and other European minorities in Nazi-occupied Europe. The Kikuyu families who were put into concentration camps by the British during the so-called Mau Mau Emergency experienced similar deprivation. Those occupants of the Sahel and the Sahara who have lost their livelihoods to drought, and have had to seek refuge at relief centers decade after decade have experienced the same. A quick internet search will reveal that Asia and the Americas have similar stories to tell.

Whether chronic malnutrition results from poverty, natural catastrophes, wars or political repression and marginalization, it deprives entire communities of their potential. Thus, observations about diminished intellectual capacity and physical stamina, and vulnerability to physical and mental illness in such communities are a testament to the long reach of malnutrition. They are not essentialist claims about "the nature of a race."

If the nutritional needs of most of Africa's children were somehow to be met, then there would be no reason for us to be having this conversation. Africa would be a self-sufficient continent, confident in her dealings with itself and the rest of humanity. But we all know that that is not Africa's present reality. A country like Kenya can afford to pay its parliamentarians world class salaries, but the average person in the village or in the urban slums often struggles to get one square meal on to the table daily. The cycles of famine and drought, which have come to define Eastern Africa, are destined to continue, punctuated by emergency cabinet meetings to deliberate the hunger crises.

Educated Africans must take a step beyond their comfort zone. Instead of spending most of their energy trying to deny the deep-seated problems that plague our societies, they should look at the bigger picture. The underdevelopment burden due to malnutrition across sub-Saharan Africa is real. By not accepting that there is a problem, Africa's educated elites become part of the problem; they stand in the path of advocacy for better nutritional health. Once we accept that there is a problem, policy makers can be pressured to diversify agricultural production on the continent. Africa's educated elites need to shed the disdain they hold for the majority of their own people and, instead, start using their skills to offer transformative advocacy and support.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Can censoring indigenous languages prevent ethnic hatred?

Today, a status update on the Facebook fan page of the Daily Nation has clarified the guidelines that users are expected to follow when posting on the page. The rationale behind the guidelines is to promote spirited discussions that remain within the bounds of decency and the law. This is not surprising at all. January 23rd 2012 is an important day in Kenyan history. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has finally made the ruling that four Kenyan men will stand trial for allegedly committing crimes against humanity during the 2007-2008 Post Election Violence (PEV). The four men are William Ruto, Uhuru Kenyatta, Francis Muthaura and Joshua Arap Sang.

Many Kenyans have heaved a huge sigh of relief at the ICC’s ruling. They would like to see justice for those who were killed, maimed and terrorized during the PEV, and realize that this would be next to impossible in a Kenyan court of law. Of course the ICC’s ruling is not an indication that any of the men is guilty by law. They still have to go to trial for that to be established or disproven. Furthermore, some have pointed out that it took more than four people to engineer the bloody events of 2007 and 2008 and that, consequently, any justice achieved at the end of the day is unlikely to be complete. Regardless of the outcome of the trial, Kenyans can rest assured that the trial will force them to come to terms with the underbelly of Kenyan political culture.

This brings us back to the Daily Nation’s Facebook fan page, where various Kenyan critics and supporters of the four men have expressed their respective elation and anger at the ruling. In response to the inciting language used by some, the moderator of the page has seen fit to reiterate the guidelines for posting on the page. Some of the guidelines entail basic internet courtesy. They ask fans to be courteous, to avoid posting in ALL CAPS and to refrain from personal attacks against each other. Others are targeted at more serious forms of offensive speech. Defamation, hate speech, sexism, tribalism and racism in posts are forbidden.

The guidelines outlined thus far sound reasonable. However, the third guideline, concerning the use of language, is curious. It states, “Since participants in the forums are from mixed backgrounds, English shall be the primary language of conversation. Some widely "accepted" slang and pidgin - Sheng -might also be permitted.” This is a curious statement for two primary reasons. One is the fact that Swahili, Kenya’s national language is completely dismissed in a forum predominantly frequented by Kenyan speakers of Swahili. The second is the fact that Kenya’s other indigenous languages are dismissed with a simple flourish. The latter can be justified as a temporary measure to keep the discussion open and minimally-polarized but there is no legitimate reason to disallow the use of Swahili on the forum.

Considering that the Nation Media Group publishes Taifa Leo, the national Swahili-language newspaper, and makes regular media broadcasts in eloquent Swahili, disallowing the use of Swahili on the Facebook page makes absolutely no sense. I am not even going to pretend to understand the reasoning behind it. I hope that when the number of people complaining about that ‘oversight’ reaches critical mass, the moderator of the page will correct it. I will, however, spend some time discussing the connection between the guideline and Kenyans’ conflicted relationships with their indigenous languages. While Swahili is an indigenous language, it is also the national language of Kenya, more widely spoken than English and understood by most Kenyans. Thus some of my statements about indigenous languages below may not apply to Swahili.

For the record, I don’t think that banning the use of Kenya’s indigenous languages in ‘Kenyan’ virtual space will neutralize the hateful sentiments felt by many Kenyans about their fellow Kenyans. Any person determined to post in hateful language will do so, even in English or Sheng’. However, I understand the reasons behind this decision on the part of the moderator of this Facebook page.

Some Kenyans resort to the use of their indigenous languages when they want to express hateful sentiments about other ethnic groups. The indigenous language has become, for them, a code to unite ‘insiders’ and to mark them as unique and different from the hated ‘outsiders.’They post divisive and inciting statements in their respective languages, often using objectifying code words to refer to the ‘other.’ Interestingly, the average person that does this seems to be of the opinion that speaking in his or her indigenous language offers protection from public scrutiny. The person erroneously believes that members of other ethnic groups will not understand these statements and that all members of his or her ethnic group will sympathize with them.

People who have been following the ICC hearings will point out that media broadcasts and speeches by public personalities in indigenous languages were characterized by the same problems and ultimately played a significant role in fracturing Kenyan society and inciting the different sides to violence in 2007-2008. Others will point out that various Kenyan discussion boards and blogs allowed the same kind of unmoderated hate speech in indigenous languages, and consequently made the situation worse. It is this history of the misuse of Kenya’s indigenous languages that makes any Kenyan entity that maintains an interactive forum online or in the mass media wary about allowing indigenous language contributions. It is not surprising that some of them would opt to completely do away with Kenyan indigenous languages and the logistical complications of trying to moderate comments in these languages.

Kenyan indigenous languages have clearly earned a terrible reputation, particularly in recent years. But is this reputation fair? Are these languages primarily the vehicles for the expression of hatred? Of course the reputation is unfair. Indigenous languages are not primarily used to express hatred and create divisiveness. Indigenous languages are vehicles for the expression of every aspect of culture- the good, the bad and the ugly. So is English, and so is Sheng’. In fact, many Kenyans who spend time online will attest that tribalism, racism and other forms of hatred are predominantly articulated in English on Kenyan forums.

Hatred is not brought into being by indigenous languages. In reality, many Kenyans live in cosmopolitan communities and are, consequently, multilingual. They worship together, go to school together, do business together, often intermarry and learn each other’s languages. So Kenya’s indigenous languages are the collective heritage of the Kenyan people. Banning the use of these languages in cosmopolitan forums is not a long-term solution for anything.

That said I cannot blame the NMG for trying to keep things simple on their Facebook page. Disallowing the use of Kenya’s indigenous languages is probably a wise move in the short term: it will make the page relatively easy to moderate in a time of heightened sensitivities. However, they will eventually have to come up with a sustainable approach to moderating comments that does not involve the censorship of entire languages.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Contemporary Africa's implication in its own underdevelopment

In early April of 2010, I was hosted at a Public Library for the presentation of my book, A Healthy You: Tame Africa's Child Malnutrition. I was quite surprised at the interest the contents generated: I had assumed the book would primarily interest Africans, but the audience was predominantly American. To cut a long story short,the presentation went well, and gave me fresh food for thought.

One issue that came to the fore during the question and answer session was the poor utilization of quality protein maize (QPM) in the place of ordinary maize to tame childhood malnutrition on the continent. Other developing continents seemed to have made greater use of this resource than Africa. One participant in the audience hinted that the African establishment seemed to enjoy "victimhood." The person speculated that they preferred to exploit the sympathy that poverty, disease, the orphan burden, and violence attracted than to do the hard work that was necessary to undo institutional dependency on foreign aid.

Globally, research on QPM has been ongoing for many years. On the African continent, it is only in Ghana that community studies have been documented. These studies have shown that Ghanaian children with Kwashiorkor fed on QPM recover. I have thoughtfully compared these with my own casual observations that Western Kenyan children, fed predominantly on a white hybrid maize staple diet continue to suffer from Kwashiorkor. The high infant mortality rate in Wetern Kenya is a crying shame, yet any possible solutions must come down to political will. When political will catches up with the reality on the ground the problem will receive the attention it deserves. The officials concerned with addressing malnutrition nationally then will be well advised to break down the national statistics for disease burden, poverty rates, and child mortality into regional figures. It will be important to identify the communities most afflicted and to apply the most intense programs within them.

Several reasons have been cited for the minimal undertaking of QPM research efforts on the African continent. One of these reasons is that many nations do not have the technical capacity to support such research. However, if Ghana can do it, why can't other African countries do it? Keep in mind that much of the hard scientific work that would facilitate such research has already been done. It seems more likely that the absence of such research efforts is attributable to the absence of coherent national development goals in many African nations. Such goals are rendered impossible because of the degree to which resources are commandeered for ethnic interests rather than national interests.

Leaders focus more on meeting the superficial needs of "their people" so that the tribal voting blocs on which they are dependent can get them back into office during the next political cycle. There really isn't much time or energy left to look into the more profound needs of their communities in the long-term, or to even think about other communities nationally. What this means is that ordinary Africans who want to see Africa change for the better have to learn to do the dirty work themselves, often without government support.

The African culture of poor leadership is bred in our homes. We must start taking responsibility for this culture: If there is something you can do to change Africa for the better, do it now, starting in your home. Don't just complain about "Africa's poor leadership." Leadership should start with you, dear reader. If you can't make the necessary sacrifice, why should you expect that somebody else will? Leadership arises from the people.

Monday, January 9, 2012

How Africa's maize turned white: a review

A while back, I read James McCann's book Maize and Grace: Africa's Encounter with a New World Crop, 1500-2000. Beautiful book! Any of you out there who can should grab a copy.

My favourite chapter in the book is "How Africa's maize turned white". It opens with the dramatic events that have characterized and shaped modern Africa, starting in South Africa i.e. mining, industrialisation, European settlement and male migrant labour. Maize is at the heart of all these events. However, whereas maize serves as the native South Africans' staple diet (in mealies and beer), for South Africa's commercial farmers, maize is a traded commodity used globally in industry and as cattle feed (and allied feeds).

According to McCann, native African maize (originally imported from South America during the Columbian era) expressed itself in very different ways on small peasant farms, displaying many colours. Up to the beginning of the 19th century, farmers could choose seed from their previous crop; they also had a variety of coloured maize varieties to choose from (e.g. Blue Flint, which they had by then christened "Blue Zulu"), but the arrival of hybrid maize changed all this. This was preceded by the discovery of diamonds at Kimberley in 1867, which led to an influx of migrant workers and capital, opening up the area for commerce and an increased demand for food. In the late 19th century White American Maize, which birthed the hybrid varieties that would revolutionize maize farming in both Southern and Eastern Africa, was imported. These new (hybrid) varieties were, in addition, high-yielding and utilized commercial fertilizer, making maize farming attractive to large commercial farmers.

While most of the world's maize crop is yellow, Africa produces mostly white maize. Chemically and genetically the 2 varieties are similar, although the yellow maize has a nutritional edge over the white maize because it contains the "carotene oil pigments responsible for the colour of yellow maize". Carotene is a precursor of Vitamin A. Most Africans prefer the white maize and refuse any other colour. In fact, when given a choice, they will pay more dearly for the white variety. This sharply contrasts with earlier Africans who selected "coloured maize ranging from crimson to blue to colourful mosaics of red, blue, yellow and orange." So how did this transformation occur?

This transformation is linked to the commercialization of maize that naturally followed increased demands for the crop. Maize became an exportable commodity which, for the purposes of the British starch and distillery industries, had to be homogeneously white. The South African crop could therefore compete on the international market, and get premium prices as a white homogeneous crop. In Southern Rhodesia, in an effort to force farmers to grow this homogeneous white crop, the cultivation of coloured varieties was outlawed. The flour mills also preferred the hybrid white maize because it was easier to mill, having a softer grain than the other varieties. One author mentioned in the book hints at another reason, divorced from the above two: "The real cause is the tendency of the native to imitate the white man, and that as the white man in Southern Africa eats only white mealie meal, the native thinks he ought to do so too". Contrary to this assertion, however, white South Africans had long identified maize as a "kaffir food".

McCann ends the chapter by reflecting on the political and economic forces inscribed by hybrid maize onto Southern Africa at the end of the 20th century: White farmers prospered while black farmers declined. Medical records from the 1920s and 1930s show that in colonial Basutoland "the incidence of pellagra and kwashiorkor increased in direct proportion to the rising percentage of maize in the diet".

Monday, January 2, 2012

Living in Translation

Whenever I have encountered American depictions of Native American or First Nations people, I have wondered why their personal names are often given in English. Names such as "Touch the Clouds," "Sitting Bull," "Crow Foot," "American Horse," and "Buffalo Hump" are the ones that typically make it into history books and anthologies. That has often left me wondering, what happened to the original names and languages of the people of these nations? Of course they still exist to varying degrees. However, for some reason, American history has not been kind enough to take First Nations people at face value, seemingly expecting that many translate themselves into English before they are comprehensible. I realize I am generalizing. There are certainly families who have retained names and traditional naming systems, and there have been movements to preserve languages and promote their use in younger generations. But, unfortunately, these efforts are rarely foregrounded in the national US consciousness.

To me, it is sad to imagine people predominantly living in translation, to the degree that, even the names they are given within the bossoms of their families are translations or approximations of names that once were. I try to imagine a parallel scenario in East Africa, where, instead of having given names in their native Dholuo, Kigiryama, Turkana or Kipfokomo, people would have had translated given names like "Firstborn Son," "Born during Famine," "Born during the Harvest," "Hyena." Perhaps these names would have been comprehensible to a large population of English speakers, but they would have marked some sort of alienation from the people's oral traditions.

It is sad when fluency in old languages is lost, but even more profoundly so when personal names in the old languages are lost. My concern is this: if people are sentenced to live in other people's languages, even in this most fundamental of senses, then to what extent do they control their image as perceived by themselves and others? Perpetually living in translation means that one is almost always accommodating oneself to others' perceptions and ways of being, even in one's own home. There is little effort being expended to do the converse: to live on one's own terms, and to get others to understand one on one's own terms. In the best of circumstances, interaction should be a two-way street. Having to live in translation is a testament that the circumstances are far from ideal.

This particular observation applies, not just to Native Americans, but also to African Americans in their naming systems and beauty ideals. When they were brought over to the US through the Middle Passage, African peoples were reinvented. They essentially lost their names to slave names and gradually lost their languages and many of their traditions. The circumstances forced them to adopt new strategies to simply survive. However, vestiges of the old ways and languages remained in their cultural practices. I have always been intrigued by such survivals, but I don't think that the comparatively new names and practices are illegitimate. In various ways, the latter speak of the history of African peoples in the Americas, and that is valuable.

That said, it has been my observation, as a non-American living in the US, that African Americans have often lived 'in translation,' reinventing themselves to conform more closely to mainstream American ideals. The most apparent indication of this was in women's hair grooming practices: Tight African curls were so demonized that, until recently, it would have been next to impossible to see black women wearing their hair without applying some form of chemical straightener or heat to it. The issue is so controversial that black hair grooming practices have been politicized. To me this is ridiculous. How can one's natural hair texture be political in a nation that claims to be Christian? From a Christian standpoint, did God not create the world and all that was in it and declare it to be good? So how on earth can any normal and healthy phenotypic expression be deemed 'bad'? How can hair of any texture or color be 'bad'? How can skin of any complexion or eyes of any shade be 'bad'?

Many black women who have opted for natural hair textures have been demonized, largely by their own families and peers. These families' and peers' reactions, while problematic, are understandable. They have lived for so long in a world where they have had to 'translate' their hair into acceptable textures that the alternative terrifies them. To me this is the epitome of 'living in translation.'

Racism was the external factor behind the 'translation' strategies historically adopted by Native American and African American peoples. However, today, I believe that the impulse to continue 'translating' comes predominantly from within. It makes sense that the efforts to transform this cultural dynamic are being developed within these very cultures.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.