“What is that prescription for?” I ask the nurse at the local health post as she scribbled on her notepad.
“Hypertension,” she replies.
“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. “Why is hypertension so common?” I later asked another nurse.
“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. Nevertheless, the nurses’ suggestion seemed reasonable, given what I’ve observed of my host family’s diet.
Seasoning cubes (full of salt and MSG) are an essential ingredient in nearly every in every lunch and dinner my host family prepares. Seasoning cubes and powder are heavily advertised on TV, billboards, and even murals painted onto boutiques across Senegal. Oil is also used very generously. My family spreads margarine made from trans fats onto their baguettes every morning, having no idea of the health implications. Vegetables are only served 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 that can afford to purchase more vegetables than normal, such as my host family, do not 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, centered around processed carbohydrates (white rice and white bread), protein (fish and beans), and oil, also makes people susceptible to disease and easily fatigued. I have seen several of my family members taking vitamin C, which is marketed as a cure for fatigue. They told me that they are tired and the medicine will give them energy. If the drug manufacturers have successfully spread the message that their product is the cure, why haven’t 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?
The Millennium Villages Project has helped this rural community make great strides in reducing hunger and increasing food security, in keeping with the Millennium Development Goals. Now that people have enough food, the next step is educating them about how they can maximize nutrition without drastically increasing the cost of their meals. Ending hunger only improves quality of life to a certain point if people are still becoming sick and chronically fatigued for lack of key vitamins and nutrients. It is vitally important for the long-term health of the communities in the developing world that these agencies not only improve food security, but extend their work to educating the population about proper nutrition.