A Response to Hunger in a 3rd world country

8 Feb

Over Winter break, I was fortunate enough to partake in SLU’s Global Medical Brigades, a club dedicated to holistic medical practice. Participants are mostly undergrad college students supported by health professionals from the U.S and the guest country, Ghana, Africa. Just the airplane ride to and from Ghana was a nutrition experience, between airplane food and the wear and tear the body experiences with little sleep and little exercise. Upon our arrival in Ghana, we were greeted in the airport with KFC signs everywhere! It’s one of the only “American” restaurants I encountered while abroad. The hustle and bustle of the airport and the capital city, Accra, were comparable, if not more hectic, than the streets of New York or other major cities! Women and men alike carry all different kinds of goods on their heads, but mostly they carry on their heads food items in woven baskets while standing in the middle of dense traffic! Common items hawkers sell include sugar bread, FanIce (a kind of ice cream), bananas, plantain chips, fried calamari, pineapples, oranges, coconuts, candies and cookies, and beverages, especially bottled or bagged water. Sugar bread tastes just as good as it sounds, like a Hawaiian roll but instead made into a loaf. Most days in clinic, we would enjoy sugar bread with peanut butter, honey, and banana sandwiches! Yum! FanIce is this delicious ice cream, unlike any ice cream I’d ever had before. It tastes like Jet Puff marshmallow cream with vanilla icing (or frosting, one of the two!). It comes in a little bag that you rip open with your teeth. Plantain chips are dried and salted plantains or banana chips. Plantains are small and sweeter while bananas are bigger.

Drinking a fresh coconut!

During our stay, all of us on brigade ate well. A hot breakfast always consisted of sautéed veggies, sugar bread with butter and mango jam, egg crepes, and, my personal favorite, freshly squeezed pineapple juice! It was always a delicious feast for breakfast and dinner, too. Dinner we usually had a lot of rice with fish and chicken as well as their spicy red pepper sauce (which I absolutely loved!) Ever since the trip, I’ve been eating more vegetables for breakfast than before!

Going into the village, Aboano, for clinic everyday was so enjoyable. The first day in the village was hard with the language barrier as well as the societal norms for appropriate dress and behaviors that we, even as guests, had to adhere to. Everyone in the village was extremely friendly and grateful for us. As we got to know the people in town, we came to understand their needs for health care and health care promotion. The latter is where many of us brigaders came to help; we were the “sidewalk salesmen” for promoting good nutrition, physical activity (stretching and proper lifting technique), malaria prevention, and the importance of clean water, just to name a few. Of course, my favorite part was getting to know their eating habits.

Like in the U.S., the townspeople were most concerned with their hypertension and obesity. With the coast just right in their backyard, most adults are farmers and fishermen. Some of their common foods are fish, corn, fresh fruit, tomatoes, potatoes, and goat’s milk. They also eat a lot of fried versions of these foods, especially the fish and some fruit. Fufu is extremely important as a staple food as well as a utensil for eating soups. Fufu is essentially a think paste made up of boiled potatoes, corn, and other root vegetables they have available. They pack it into a moist ball whereby you then make an indentation in the ball and scoop up the stew or soup you are eating and, finally, swallowing the fufu itself. You are not supposed to chew fufu since it is generally frowned upon. Therefore fufu not only serves as a food but also as a utensil! A very similar food they also make is banku, which is eaten in the same way, only it has a vinegary, bitter taste to it. It is considered a delicacy!

From a nutrition standpoint, these people are fortunate that they are able to get natural variety from their location near the coast and the wealth of fruits and vegetables that are available to them as farmers. The problem is that they get into a rut of eating fried fish and rice, or fufu with stew and baked fish, which is all fine but only in moderation. Even with the readily available amount of fruit, such as coconuts and bananas and oranges, people do not eat them as part of a balanced diet. Processed sugar is a major combatant as most of the prepackaged foods are new, hot items for them. Already, most of their breads are sweeter and have less whole grain than recommended.

Clean water is not an easy commodity in the Central Region, where many children we saw suffered from intestinal problems and a few children with instances of kwashikor, where their bellies protrude due to protein deficiency. The children do suffer from some malnutrition or dehydration, but it is really not as much of a problem as one might expect. Ghana, for the most part, is a growing African nation that really is very well off in terms of availability of foods as a natural resource. Clean water is still a rare commodity. Because of this problem, townspeople purchase bagged water, which is a thin plastic, 8 fl. oz bag filled with water, or bottled water. These plastic methods, though helpful in curbing the number of intestinal diseases, has lead to an environmental ordeal. To overhaul this system, a portion of our mission was to supply the townspeople with LifeStraws. LifeStraws are in-home filters, able to take pond water from their local source and turn it into 99.99% pure water. It was the most memorable experience for me installing a LifeStraw into a family’s home. The look of gratitude and joy the adults and children had over their faces as well as their reaction was unforgettable. The mother, Ester, even got down on her knees and praised God for bringing us to her. It was a humbling and unique experience that I will not forget.With the help of Penn State’s brigade, we were able to see close to 1,000 patients during our five clinic days in the village of Aboano, located within the Central Region of Ghana. We gave out prescriptions, mostly for anti-malaria, hypertension, and antiparasitic medications as well as over the counter multivitamins, various creams, and acetaminophen. We helped clean and bandage children’s wounds, including mostly fungal infections and lacerations around the foot, because most children walk barefoot on the rocky, uneven ground. We got to give them dental care, teaching the children how to brush their teeth and offering fluoride trays. Providing them with a source of clean, fresh water and teaching them how to care for their bodies was one of the most important tasks in teaching health promotion so that they can eventually stop taking medications.

With free health care being offered by Brigaders like us, eventually people in Aboano will live healthier, more sustainable lives.

What an amazing cultural experience it was!

 

Gretchen Landgraf is a junior in the undergraduate program of Nutrition and Dietetics at Saint Louis University

Contact: glandgra@slu.edu

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