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"Culture is the heritage of us all. some may be more interested than others in the treasures of the past, but no one can fail to take a pride in his country's participation in the story of mankind, as represented in carvings, sculpture, music, paintings and the other arts. And there is a personal commitment to this, for no man can really say he is alone: we are all joined through our identity, with the cultures which are part of the mainstream of life"
- Simon Kapwepwe, Zambian Independence Freedom Fighter

"Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm" - Winston Churchill

"Try to be the rainbow in someone else's cloud" - Maya Angelou

"Your time is limited so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinion drown out your inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition" - Steve Jobs

Monday, 30 October 2017

Laughter is not always the best medicine

When I saw this I didn't laugh. One, because the joke was not that funny - it was really predictable and has been told by many an African before this comedian. More importantly, it was a poor use of satire, one of my favourite tools we as humans have to communicate really serious issues in a disarming, more accessible way. I don't think when people watched this they thought goodness, I think that Africa is facing another huge preventable health problem, I think they thought this is so true - it's actually our mothers, grandmothers and matriarchs who have always been the problem. The argument was not strong enough and was poorly presented. It was dangerously dismissive of how this profound change in the way we eat can truly affect us. Worse, globally we have been idly seeing the effects for decades, so we here in Africa are literally following suit with our eyes wide open!

Recently there has been a huge explosion of malls and global fast food restaurants have scrambled to have outlets in them. The thing is, because we have heard about the strict standards these brands tend to have, we feel like we have hit a milestone in our development. In the late 90s and early 2000s only South African chains were opening up in Zambia. We now are worthy of such establishments and we find it cool to go eat and be seen there. I wonder how we will react when Micky D's finally comes to town as they are arguably the pickiest when it comes to granting franchise licences as they are finicky about brand consistency, standards and quality control.  We now have these companies sponsoring cool events, bringing more to do in Lusaka and making them ever more appealing. Worse part is they organise giveaways in the compounds (shanty towns) which I personally think is irresponsible - you are creating the perfect storm for brand loyalty from the most vulnerable in our society to seek out food that is cheap and addictive, not that nutritious and that could potential lead to health issues they will likely be unable to deal with. We are so focused on the appearance and financial gains of development without really stopping to think about the consequences

The growing middle class are excited about their new spending power and they are flocking to buy all the processed products found in the supermarkets in the malls that have flooded our neighbourhoods. I have 3 strip malls between 1 to 5 minutes away from me! It's ridiculous. In the same way we turn our nose up at our traditional grain based flour to make our staple food nshima for the trendier, less nutrious maize because it is white (and prettier than the shades of brown millet, sorghum etc produce), more fashionable and less village, we are doing the same with our food purchases. Why go to the market or grow your own food when you can be spotted at the mall with a trolley full of groceries in plastic bags? We love to be decadent and to show off even if it is to our detriment. We already have been unable to deal with HIV, malaria, TB, cancer and now we are going to further strain our resources by adding obesity and related diseases such as Type 2 diabetes to the list ?! The conversations I have had with doctors and medical professionals over the years scare me. Despite all the campaigns backed by government and development agencies that keep telling us this time we shall conquer, it seems our issues aren't really getting any better and the majority of Zambians are still grosssly under-served by our health resources.

I know a lot of people talk about personal responsibility, common sense and how the overweight and obese should be able to control themselves and exercise, but there are so many studies out there that show that the road to gaining weight is a highly complicated one, and for many one fraught with so many pitfalls as they try to regain control with healthier lifestyles. This issue needs to be treated with compassion and where possible thwarted before it has a chance to embed itself into the culture of a place.  Companies can still make money and be responsible about how they market and label their products.  However I feel that here in Zambia in particular, it may already be too late and we are not equipped with the emotional intelligence coupled with the political will to tackle this next real challenge on our health system. 

I had the most surreal experience with a lady I met through friends at a concert. As we were listening to the music, an obese person stood in front of us causing the lady to express with vitriol how disgusting the person was and how could they let themselves go like that and why was she out in public. I was so taken aback by the unabashed honestly and worse the fact that this lady thought that this wasn't cruel, and that she could freely speak to me like that. I replied that you have no idea why the person has put on that much weight, they are likely to be dealing with something physically, psychologically and/ or emotionally. Rather than judgement, that person has the right to dignified humanity from the world around them. I have heard people callously call children fat off the cuff.  We would rather see the overweight as a sign of wealth and health - being HIV-. Sick and/ or poor people are skinny. I don't think we have the will as citizens to push for change. We unfortunately will not be seeing people lobbying for USD42 million spent on gastric bypass operating equipment or doctor's training, the special ambulances and beds to handle the weight the morbidly obese, the medication... 

I am a really healthy eater. I was brought up that way and naturally gravitate to homegrown and home cooked nutritious food. Even though I spent my first years in the UK, my mother befriended Zambia Airways air hostesses to bring her kapenta (dried sardines). Our protein historically came from lean animal and vegetable proteins.  Fish could be caught fresh daily and dried to last months in the heat before we had refrigeration. It does not require large parties to be enjoyed without wastage. Apenta was one of my first words and to this day, one of my favourite fish dishes to eat.   Mum also found a way to grow beans in the cold Northern English climate so we could have chinkamba (bean leaves) to cook authentic traditional nshima meals.  We always had a garden wherever we lived and we grew things. I remember being proud of growing my own groundnuts (mbalala) and strawberries in my patch as a toddler. In Zambia and Kenya we only bought fruits that weren't growing in the garden. Since I moved back to Zambia in 2011 cashiers and/ or peopel in line behind me at supermarkets comment because I don't buy what the average Zambian purchases when they make the trip. I'm always told "you buy white people things" like broccoli, cauliflower, quinces, parsnips, pomegranate juice or assorted seeds like pumpkin and flaxseed. If you follow me on Instagram you will have seen how I love to post about food grown at the farm in my ancestral village, healthy food bought at stores and how I still eat well when I am travelling and eating out. I don't eat fast food often. When I do it's a guilt-free treat because I only indulge a couple of times a year. 

I'm really passionate about this issue. We are a young population in Zambia and across Africa who are destined to be crippled by so many things before we have a chance to bloom.  So I say if we are going to use satire, let's use it wisely and effectively and regardless, we need to be less dismissive and more proactive about this pandemic which I would wager is likely to become the biggest health crisis across the continent in the next decade.  Though I am the Queen of passion, I don't believe in sticking ones head in the sand or up ones ahem to maintain a sense of optimism in life.  So even though I have painted rather a bleak future, even though collectively we are falling short, I believe if enough individuals stand up and fight, eventually as communties, we can change the way we as society deal with obesity. 

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