This post is the third in a three-part series from students participating in Global Citizen Year, a global bridge year program designed to unleash the potential of high school students as leaders and effective agents of change.
“What is that prescription for?” I asked the nurse at the local health post in Senegal, as she scribbled on her notepad.
“Hypertension,” she replied.
“Is that a common problem here?” In response, she pushed the record book across her desk and pointed to the “diagnosis” column.
Common would be an understatement. Surveying the column, I estimated that hypertension accounted for roughly a third of the diagnoses of patients 55 and over.
I later asked another nurse why hypertension was so common.
“Diet?” he offered tentatively, with a small shrug. I found it troubling that the nurses were not sure of the cause of this significant health problem, but this suggestion seemed reasonable, given what I'd observed of my host family's diet.
Seasoning cubes containing salt and MSG are an essential ingredient in nearly every lunch and dinner that my host family prepares. Seasoning cubes and powder are heavily advertised on TV, billboards, and even murals painted on boutiques across Senegal. Oil is also used very generously, and my family spreads margarine made from trans fats onto their baguettes every morning, with no idea of the health implications. Vegetables are served only as part of lunch, and even then, there is only enough for each person to have a few bites of carrot, cabbage, yam, or squash in addition to the fish and rice. The vegetables are locally grown, but they are still relatively expensive compared to white rice, the staple carbohydrate of the Senegalese diet. Even families who can afford to purchase more vegetables than average, such as my host family, don’t do so, because traditionally people simply don't eat many vegetables. It seems that my host family and rural community as a whole are unaware that eating more vegetables can improve their health.
This lack of a balanced diet, which is centered on processed carbohydrates (white rice and white bread), protein (fish and beans), and oil, also makes people easily fatigued and susceptible to disease. I have seen several of my family members take vitamin C, which is marketed as a cure for fatigue. They told me that they are tired and that the medicine will give them energy. If the drug manufacturers have successfully spread the message that their product is the cure, why haven't nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the government been able to tell the population that proper nutrition, including eating more vegetables, is the real way to maintain health and combat fatigue?
NGOs in Senegal have helped this rural community make great strides in reducing hunger and increasing food security, in line with the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. Now that people have enough food, the next step is to educate them about how to maximize nutrition without drastically increasing the cost of their meals. Ending hunger improves quality of life to a certain point, but if people are still becoming sick and chronically fatigued for lack of key vitamins and nutrients, there is more to do. It is vitally important for the long-term health of communities in the developing world that organizations not only improve food security, but also extend their work to food education.
How, and when, is the right time to focus on food education, not simply food security? How can organizations effectively spread the word that nutrition is an important way to improve health and fight fatigue?