Have you eaten?

When my oldest stepbrother was a teenager, we could always tell when he and his friends had been in our house.  My dad and stepmom referred to them collectively as “the locusts” because of the way they consumed so rapidly all of the food in the kitchen.  Whole gallons of milk, loaves of bread, large packages of cheese, and/or a dozen eggs could disappear in a day.  I have memories from that era of bringing home leftover Chinese food and writing “CMK / DO NOT EAT!” all over the box in addition to hiding it out of sight in the fridge because I feared they would devour it before I got back to it.  Everything was at risk for locust consumption in those days.  It wasn’t that they weren’t eating well at meals; they could also consume massive amounts of pasta and meatballs, many pizzas, or several overflowing burritos after having helped themselves to the snacks described above.  They were just growing teenage boys and they also played sports, so their appetites were insatiable.  My stepmom and all of the other neighborhood parents fed them and fed them, and they flourished.  My stepbrother grew to over six feet tall and became a sought-after athlete, as did many of his friends.

This memory, now around 10 years old, suddenly came back to me as I was observing the life of my concession family.  (This continues to be an ongoing reciprocal activity: I observe them and they observe me, and both sides find it to be a fairly intriguing pass-time.)  The family with whom I live probably sits somewhere in the middle class of the village.  They’re farmers; the father goes to the fields every day, and the mom makes soy cheese (which is really tofu) and sells it in the nightly market, which is the same thing that almost all families do (farming and small commerce, that is).  And they support five kids with the money from those activities.  But they also raise chickens and goats and have two well-to-do relatives (brothers of the father, who both went to school and entered into successful careers in business and medicine while their other brother–the father of this family–was working in the fields) who help them out with things like paying the kids’ school fees and helping with costly visits to the health center, etc.  So they’re not the richest of folks, but they’re also not the poorest.  And the kids seem like fairly healthy, well-kept ones, from appearances.  

At any rate, one of my earliest friends in village was the young boy next door, who we’ll call Maurice.  I originally pegged him at ten or eleven years old but it turns out he was thirteen.  He is sweet with a rebellious streak in him and has glistening brown eyes and a serious face that take in everything he sees and hears.  From the first week, he got in the habit of hanging around my house, accompanying me on errands, and chatting with me.  As such, he became one of my initial windows into the family and into the culture and habits that pervaded the village.  One night, I was sitting on my front stoop watching them eat dinner and I suddenly realized that this thirteen-year-old wasn’t given any more to eat than the five-year-old, and they were both just eating a heap of pâte (boiled corn flour that becomes a grainy paste that has sort of the consistency of cookie dough, with about an eighth of the nutritional content that cookie dough has) with sauce.  And I saw that this was all they would eat before bed.  The memory of the “locusts” flashed back to me and I wondered at the difference that could exist in the two parallel worlds of teenage boys.

After that, I started observing food behaviors in the family and around village.  When I first arrived at post, I was still thinking of the kind of malnutrition that I saw in Uganda, where children were literally wasting away; and when I didn’t see this, I was tricked into thinking that food and nutrition weren’t significant issues here.  As time continues to pass, I’m changing my mind about this.  It’s not as obvious to the casual observer as it was there, but just because you don’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there and isn’t a real problem.  Hidden things can have huge impacts, too.

A few weeks ago, some of the neighborhood kids were sitting in my house on a Saturday evening and I heard one of the little ones saying in Fon that she was hungry.  This girl is about six years old and fairly quiet and shy, unlike her rambunctious brother and younger sister.  Her brother responded to her complaint with something that I didn’t quite catch, but I think was along the lines of “Be quiet, just wait, we’ll eat later,” and continued flipping through one of my magazines.  Some days I would have let it go, perhaps pretended I didn’t catch the Fon, or just not pushed the issue–after all, they aren’t my kids; it’s not my responsibility to make sure they’re taken care of, right?  But that day the girl seemed genuinely distressed and verging on tears so I asked the older brother why she was so hungry.  He said that they had only eaten once the whole day (and it was now nearing 7 PM) because his parents had gone to the fields and hadn’t left anything for the kids to eat or money with which to buy food.  When I heard this, I was floored and pretty angry–not at the kids, but at the parents who had left them like that and admittedly, angry at them for putting me in this position.  I’m not a parent, and there’s a reason for that.  If I felt that I was ready to have kids and take care of kids, I would do it.  They’re the ones who brought these children into the world; why should they become my responsibility?  Surely they’re aware that small children are not like animals–you can’t just leave them all day and feed them once at night.  My blood was boiling but I told myself that I shouldn’t take out these feelings on the kids; it wasn’t their fault.

At face value, you might read about this situation and remark solely on the irresponsibility of the parents (my first reaction, obviously, and a valid one), but the situation also illustrates a lot about the differences between life here and the way of life familiar to me and I suppose probably to you.  For instance, when I was young, even though my parents worked, my siblings and I were able to come home and fix a snack after school even in their absence, because we had enough money to keep food stocked in the house and to enable us to eat as much as we wanted without having to worry about food running out.  Here, most people can afford to buy only what they need at one time, meaning that there is often nothing in the kitchen between meals.  It also means that if hungry children went around eating the family’s food as they pleased, they might end up with not enough to make dinner that night.  Additionally, the behavior of these parents says a lot about how much more quickly children are expected to grow up here than they are in the States, and about the attitude of suffering being just a part of life to which children should start getting accustomed at an early age.  

But back to my little friend that evening.  As it happened, that day I had resolved not to be lazy and to actually cook something instead of just buying food in the market, so I had some rice sitting on my stove.  I now decided to let the kids eat it even though I hadn’t had my own dinner yet–I could always make more.  It was just such a sad thing to see; even though I knew it wasn’t my problem, I couldn’t just ignore them.  I served up all the rice and they practically inhaled it, scraping every last grain off the plate at the end.  Then the little girl, looking happier, asked for some water and said something to her brother in Fon.  I asked for a translation, and he said “Oh, she just said she wanted to drink a big glass of water because it will fill up her stomach and then she won’t be hungry any more.”  My heart broke a little with those words.

The thing is, I don’t think this kind of thing is too unusual here.  As I’ve started paying attention a little more, I’ve realized that there’s probably hunger lurking underneath the facade of many of the smiling, playing, running, working kids I see.  I’ve found that nearly all kids are sent to school each morning having eaten nothing.  They have a break at 10AM during which they can buy food–usually a small bowl of porridge or a handful or two of rice–if their parents have given them money, but from observation in the different schools during this time, it seems that only about half the kids eat during this time.  The lunch break is three hours long (from 12 to 3PM), to allow for the heat of the day to pass a little bit, and also I thought to allow time for the kids to make a meal from scratch.  However, from what I’ve seen while drifting around village and heard in the chatter of kids, it seems like many families don’t make real food at lunch time either, and the kids often go back to school after having eaten gari [manioc flour] mixed with water (tastes like cardboard and nourishes the body the same way cardboard would, but fills up the stomach) or maybe some akassa [boiled corn flour with a lower flour-to-water ratio than pâte and a jello-like consistency] with hot pepper for flavor if they were lucky that day.  They sit in class all afternoon, then they come home, cook dinner, and eat a big meal so they will be able to sleep without waking up and feeling hungry.  I think that’s why in the evening, one of the ways you can greet someone is to ask “adu nua?” (have you eaten?), but that’s the only time all day that people use that greeting.

I put all that together and I see that food and nutrition are definitely problems here.  After the rice incident, I was talking to Maurice about how it wasn’t good for his parents to leave them like that and how it was important for kids to eat.  He agreed with me, and then he kind of shrugged and looked at me and said “ça ne tue pas” (it won’t kill you).  Back to that, again, are we?  It’s true that the kind of hunger they are experiencing won’t kill them directly, but anyone who thinks that it’s not leaving a permanent mark on those kids is mistaken.  Aside from growth issues and decreased immune system function, two of the most-cited effects of malnutrition, consider the difficulties of succeeding in school when your brain is so rarely getting the nutrients it needs and you are often hungry while in class or while trying to study.  The effects of this problem will never be seen; they are in the potential AIDS-curing scientist that never makes it past 8th grade and in the potential soccer star that never develops the muscles to play well and in the potential future president of Benin who dies of an infection before her tenth birthday.  They’re in the things that could be but never will be because these children were born here instead of into a family like mine.  

And because these effects are invisible, fighting the problem is difficult.  A big part of my job here is working on nutrition, but the obstacles that stand in the way of success with that work are numerous and large.  I’ve seen some progress in improving infant and toddler nutrition through a growth monitoring program that I started: every two weeks, my work partners and I spend a Saturday morning weighing children under two, charting their growth, chatting with their mothers about nutrition, and giving advice.  In the cases where we’ve really seen an impact of our work, the main problem seemed to be a lack of information on the mothers’ part; they were eager to do things “right” for their children and had the resources available to enact the things we taught them, so we saw results quickly.  However, this represents the minority of cases.  Many women chat with us enthusiastically about nutrition but then comment that while that is all very interesting and they learned something, unfortunately they just can’t afford the things we are suggesting that they feed their children.  This is one of the parts of this job that is most difficult for me–feeling out how much of that is legitimately true and how much it might be that they just don’t see the importance of what I’m saying.  Because I know that people don’t have a lot of money, but could they actually afford to buy some fish once in awhile if they cut something else out of the equation?  Probably; it’s just a matter of seeing which thing is more important.  It’s a tough judgement call, and it’s not actually my call to make, so I usually say nothing–I tell them that even if it’s once a week that they can incorporate a fruit or a protein into the diet of the child, it’s better than nothing–but it would just help me to figure out the situation in my head and to plan more effective projects if I had a more clear idea of how much each motivation and means contributed to the problem.

Then there’s also the issue of the limited availability of food in the village.  Carbohydrates are abundantly available in some variety, but fruits and vegetables are extremely limited, especially during the dry season.  Proteins such as fish, eggs, and soy cheese (tofu) are available year-round but are pricey, and often an entire family shares a piece of fish that is roughly equivalent in size to one fish stick in America.  The availability facet of the problem actually seems to be easier to tackle than the other ones, and I’m in the process of working on this.  I’ve talked to people about starting a vegetable garden that would include things that aren’t found in village, such as carrots and lettuce and who knows what else, and they seem excited about it; there are just some logistical things to be worked out.  Additionally, PC Benin does a lot of work with a tree called moringa, which grows quickly and easily here and whose leaves contain lots of vitamins and even protein.  Recently, someone in my community asked me about this tree and said he’d be excited to help me start a moringa project perhaps in conjunction with the middle/high school.  So I hope those things pan out.  

I guess it’s unlikely that the children in this community will ever be as well-nourished as the “locusts” of my childhood, but if we can take some small steps towards equalizing the two worlds a little bit, I guess I will have to accept that.  

I’ll try to post again sooner next time–I know it has been forever.  Funny how writing works; sometimes my head is overflowing with things I want to write in the blog, and sometimes it just seems to shut off and I can’t put words on the page no matter how hard I try.  But I’m still alive, still here, still chipping away at that brick wall.  And hanging out with my new kitty–unofficially named Paco Snickerdoodle Awi.  [Paco is the name I tried to give him but it didn’t really stick, Snickerdoodle is the name that my friend Ali gave him and it did stick, and Awi is what he is usually called in practice because it’s the word for ‘cat’ in Fon.]

Until next time:)

2 thoughts on “Have you eaten?

  1. Thank you for the thought-provoking post, CMK — and for the smile. I had forgotten about the locusts. Skipped making potica last year because my helper wasn’t here. I’m going to give it a whirl this year, perhaps solo. We’ll see. Miss you!

  2. Hello, I am Lelanda and a friend of your mother’s and Fr. Max from their church in Longmont. Thank you for writing your blog, posting your photos, and sharing your life in the Peace Corps in Benin. I was with Anne and Max last night at a gathering that they hosted to thank the folks at church who helped to write the Lilly grant that will enable them to visit you in January. We are all very excited for them about the entire sabbatical and most especially the opportunity that they will have to visit you in person and deliver shoes for the girls to play soccer!

    I am Chinese by ethnicity, and in the Cantonese language, our form of greeting — like “Hi” in English or “Hola” in Spanish — is “Have you eaten?” (phonetically – Neh hecht, mai-ah?). For the Cantonese, I don’t think it was historically so much about an actual inquiry about eating as it was a hospitable thing to ask in case you hadn’t eaten, so that food could be offered to you. In that case, in a poor family, the food might be a bit of millet or a few grains of roasted rice in a bowl of tea, possibly a thin porridge or gruel.

    Thank you for this most excellent post. I viewed your photos and read this first post and feel like I am peeking in on you. Wishing you all good blessings!

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