A few observations about Mozambique, Nutrition and Globalization

Everywhere I go I observe people. I watch what they are doing, I listen to the things they are saying, I notice their physical appearances and especially given my interest in nutrition and gastronomy, I observe what they are eating and drinking. My observations related to this last theme are troubling and foreshadow major challenges in the social welfare of Mozambicans. These observations come from spending large amounts of time in rural subsistence based agriculture communities as well as in urbanized/westernized Mozambican cities.

In order to contextualize the drastic changes that globalization and economic “development” have brought to the traditional Mozambican diet it is important to say that the situation is typical of most global South countries. People mostly lived in small subsistence agriculture communities and had diets rich in unrefined fermented grain porridges (sorghum and millet here in Africa), lots of vegetables, legumes and fruits, very little dairy or meat and no refined sugar. This was accompanied by an active lifestyle of physical labor and walking. With the arrival of global trade and industrialized convenience, the food markets have been flooded with refined flours, sugar, chemical flavorings and inexpensive meat and dairy products. The shift in diet also coincides with a shift in lifestyle from rural subsistence agriculture to urban environments, sedentary lifestyles and wage labor. These shifts are well documented and this should be of no surprise to anyone, however to hear it talked about in literature and then actually see the process unfolding around me in the village is quite a different experience.

It is the western bias to applaud this shift from rural, subsistence, “underdevelopment”, towards urbanization and “developed” as a positive, inevitable fact of human evolution; which it most definitely is not. Globalization is ironically only a fact of human destiny for the one monoculture that is promulgating itself across the planet, wiping out indigenous cultures in its path. In the past this was proselytizing religion; today it is corporate capitalism. Subsistence agricultural communities in general are mostly self-sufficient with the vast majority of people living sustainable lifestyles with more than enough food, air, leisure time and cultural activities. It is only the western consumerist, materialist mindset that says that living with enough is actually not enough, and that we must constantly strive to have more, “develop” and produce more, which in western actions translates into further resource extraction and ecosystem destruction. Let me repeat this: The vast majority of people living subsistence lifestyles are happy, have enough food, leisure time, cultural activities, material possessions and most importantly, live in an ecologically sustainable way. Poverty is a term invented by western cultures; but I digress.

The health effects of these dietary shifts are also well documented; drastically increased rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. When I arrived in Africa I expected to encounter most people fitting into the typical stereotype of Africans living on a meager subsistence lifestyle. Instead I encountered many people overweight, gorging themselves on cheap overabundant processed foods. In my experience, real hunger in Mozambican society seems to be the case of fairly rare and isolated incidences. Most hunger is related to behavioral choices or unfortunate family circumstances. Families where parents have died (usually from AIDS) and left multiple children living with grandparents or the oldest child are serious situations and definitely should be the recipients of food aid and social support. The behavioral choices resulting in lack of food are usually related to alcoholism by the father of the family, where instead of providing food for his family he spends his money and time consuming alcohol. I discovered this throughout my travels. I show up to a village and there is usually a group of men sitting under the shade drinking. Usually one or two (visibly intoxicated) will right away start begging for food, imploring that their farms did not produce for lack of rain or they lack money to buy food. I begin to question the other men, asking them if their farms produced this year. Of course the farm produced they say, it rained very well, we have plenty of food, and nobody in my home will be hungry this year. The begging men then change tactics and say that they don’t earn enough money to buy food. I begin to question them on their budgeting and financial planning. Most men do odd construction jobs, cut reeds, harvest wood or produce cows for financial gain. Very quickly it becomes obvious that whatever money comes in immediately goes right back out and into the local bar. This is not hunger; this is stupidity and irresponsibility for which these men’s families are suffering the consequences.

Also in my experience the situation in the cities has already shifted from a cultural norm of subsistence, to a cultural norm of overconsumption and caloric excess. Don’t get me wrong, the obesity and dietary problem is nowhere near as bad as in westernized countries, and there are many fit and healthy people. The concern is the trend however, and there is no doubt that the trends in obesity and sedentary lifestyles are beginning to have serious consequences for the social health system, which is already stretched to its capacity. Aside from the just the overconsumption of calories, the lack of nutrients and chemical additives present in processed foods as opposed to whole-foods is a major cause for concern, especially given the correlation between long-term exposures and increasing cancer rates as in the West. I have witnessed on multiple occasions people harvesting the fruit in their yard to then sell and buy cheap processed crackers and sodas that obviously lack the nutritional value of the fruits. Processed food is a double-whammy for the traditional diet; higher quantities of calories coinciding with much lower quality of nutrients.

The real danger of this trend is that it seems to be completely under the radar of government and NGO health initiatives. Working in the “development industry” and talking to colleagues, I am exposed to and hear about many different ideas and projects related to education, health, food security, disease prevention and immediate health interventions such as malaria bed net distributions or HIV testing. Not once have I encountered a nutritional education program that focuses on avoiding obesity, processed food and sedentary lifestyles. Most of the programs are still in the mindset of treating malnourished children and food insecurity. Both of which definitely exist and should be addressed, however not to the complete ignorance of the issue of overconsumption of processed foods. I consistently meet people who are overweight with type two diabetes and other related complications who have no idea about the steps they need to take to reduce their weight, let alone treat their condition through dietary and lifestyle modification. Even the Doctors in the hospitals do not know how to advise their patients. There is wide scale ignorance about nutrition, diet and the benefits of physical activity; in the past, most people were healthy because the cultural tradition of subsistence agriculture dictated their activity patterns and diet. Now in the face of making food choices in a globalized food economy, the ignorance of nutrition and physiology becomes blatantly obvious by the poor food choices I often observe.

In an example of the Western mindset’s problem solving strategy of treating the symptoms of a problem rather than the cause, the issue of nutrient fortification is a hot topic at the moment. Instead of shielding people from the influx of processed foods through restricting trade, and teaching them about the value of their traditional diet, the brains in the “aid” world think that treating malnourishment is as simple as adding in nutrients to the staple items in the diet. However this ignores the real issue completely, which is the fact that many people are malnourished because they have stopped eating their traditional diets or because of cultural norms in household food distribution. (for example. the youngest children eat last at meal times etc.) Foods need to be fortified when their innate qualities of nutrients have been taken out by processing (milling, refining, high temperature cooking and pasteurization etc.). People who eat strictly whole food diets in general are not malnourished! On the issue of nutrient fortification the most important thing is to be skeptical; which western food producer is going to get the multimillion dollar contract to do the fortification, or which biotechnology giant is going to get the contract to splice the gene for more vitamin Z into such and such a plant.

The vast majority of these NGO project’s goals are seeking behavior change, and seem to be operating with the premise that education is the key. They tend to reason that if only people knew how HIV was transmitted, they would avoid contracting and spreading HIV, or if people knew more about the lifecycle of the Anopheles mosquito and the Malaria parasite, they would avoid getting malaria. Education is celebrated as a key factor in behavior change, which certainly it is, for those already interested in change and aware of the problem. But in a fact and knowledge saturated western world, where almost everybody knows the dangers of a poor diet and physical inactivity, obesity rates and its associated health complications are the highest in the world! So clearly this issue goes way deeper than just educating people about nutrition. These issues of behavior change must be recognized to exist on the more profound levels of cultural conditioning. Mozambique has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world. Is this because of lack of education and prevention? In certain instances probably; but in most instances it is important to realize that Mozambican culture is probably one of the most sexually promiscuous cultures in the world! To bring the subject back to diet, as I’ve already said, America and the west are saturated in education yet the populace makes poor choices and over consumes. I argue that this is a result of the profound cultural conditioning that teaches people a value system based on an unquenchable thirst for material consumption which leaves a perpetual void and lack of fulfillment in people’s lives that they then desperately try to fill with prepackaged entertainment such as television, trash media and the stimulating pleasures of eating fatty, sugary, processed foods.

Another issue with Mozambican culture and the influx of cheap processed foods is that traditionally this is a culture where a big fat body is a signal of power and influence in the community. From cultural traditions hundreds of years old, when all communities were strictly agriculturally/pastorally based, a fat body demonstrated virility, ability to provide for a family or clan and an abundance of food and wealth. This African cultural ideal is still blatantly obvious in Mozambican society; most of the police officers, government officials, merchants, ministers and people in power positions are overweight. In fact when I first arrived and made this connection I was shocked by just how consistent this pattern in weight really is. So now in this global food economy, a cultural tradition that symbolically values obesity, combined with an overabundance of cheap processed calories means that literally anyone and everyone can have that “chief’s belly”, and trust me, many people do! In a country like Mozambique where basic health services are already asking a lot, it is difficult to quantify obesity rates and the associated societal costs; as is done in the West. However I think if any sort of academic study was done the results would be surprising. While the aid world fixates on periodic famines, HIV and malnutrition, the global processed food industry is exploiting new markets in countries like Mozambique that have no awareness of the impending costs and problems associated with these dietary shifts. Mozambicans seem to be enjoying “the good life” of the novelty of processed foods and beverages, without any realization of the future dangers to themselves and their public health systems.

Aside from the cultural issues, another observed phenomenon seems to be accelerating the advance of the western diet here in Mozambique; marketing. In general, people are very naïve to advertising techniques and marketing strategies and I would use the term “media illiterate”, which means that they may have difficulty discerning the advertisement from a real factual media situation. It is a well observed fact that in the West, the food and beverage industry routinely uses advertisements to promote the ideas that their products will bring happiness, health and fulfillment to the users, including vulnerable target audiences such as children. The same techniques are used here, except that the population is much less exposed to solicitations and may or may not understand that the true objective of any advertising is to sell a product. A potent example is the advertising campaign that Nestle used in the 1980’s to sell cows-milk based baby formulas to third world mothers, with the disastrous effect that women all over the world began to believe that their own Nature-perfected breast milk was deficient. This false advertising also sells the idea that to eat processed and store bought food is a luxury, and playing into the cultural theme, something that wealthy people do. Many times I have heard people stigmatize the local vegetarian dishes as “poor-people” food, and that when they are “rich and successful” in life they will eat lots of meat and drink as much beer and soda as they please. A major concern in countries like Mozambique is that there are neither consumer protection services nor strict quality control systems. Corporations are pretty much completely free to use whatever tactics they want to promote and sell their products.

Finally, a third issue that I have observed negatively affecting the diets of Mozambicans is the arrival of chain-grocers and fast food outlets. In Xai-Xai, the district capital 1.5 hours away I have observed the arrival of 2 South African chain grocers and several fast food restaurants including a KFC, just in the two years I have been here. Due to their vigorous advertising and super-efficient supply chains, these grocers affect the local economy by undercutting prices in the local market. Additionally, the vast majority of products sold are imported, unhealthy processed foods and sodas, with the profits from these sales going right back to South Africa or wherever in the West the corporate headquarters may be. One of the worst things I have observed is that through the stores advertising campaigns they have tricked Mozambicans into being proud to have these corporate atrocities invading their neighborhoods, because they are symbols of “development” and “economic advance”. I am constantly explaining to Mozambicans why I will never shop at these box stores when I can support the local vegetable vendors who desperately need the money to support their families. I have given many a passionate soap box speech and have convinced many people after explaining the true economics behind these stores and the way they are mining the local economy.

We are now faced with many difficult questions. Should the food industry and corporate food outlets be held responsible for increasing obesity related health problems? Of course they should, but the revolving door of politics and industry, as well as corporate greed are much too strong to hope that they will ever be held accountable or have a sudden ethical epiphany. Unfortunately I think the situation is going to have to reach a critical point as it currently doing so in the West, before people really wake up and start talking about social solutions. For Mozambique this still lies much further off in the future because as I said, this issue is not even on the agenda at the moment and so the food industry will continue to move in and exploit under the banner of “development”, while more people sit fat and content to live the “good life”; until their foot needs to be amputated because of their diabetes and hypertension.

Photos: Traditional Mozambican food that I have cooked throughout my time here

Mathapa – Crushed Mandioca leaves, onions, tomato and garlic stewed in coconut milk and peanut flour

Xiginha (Shi-geen-ya) – Mandioca root simmered in coconut milk and peanut flour with a bitter local leaf called Cacana (which i have actually seen growing as a weed in Florida!)

Matzao – same as Mathapa, but with pumpkin leaves instead of Mandioca leaves

Couve – same as mathapa, same as Matzao but with collard greens instead of other leaves. Starting to see a pattern here?

Bush meat – probably Impala. It was delicious.

Beans – pounded beans cooked in coconut milk with tomato, onion and garlic

Dried insects! – delicious, they taste like nutritional yeast

Various local African fruits – Macuacua, Masala and Mafura

Chief belly admiring pig