One of my best friends will be disappointed in me once knowing this, since peanuts are her ultimate enemy, but I eat peanut butter and/or peanuts every day of my life here. I find it is one thing I can consistently find that provides me protein and nutrients. Before arriving in Mali I had the notion that I would get to eat quite heathfully and mostly organically. The reality is far from that supposition. With the arrival of sickness after sickness I, for the most part, stopped eating with my Malian family as they use untreated water and rarely wash their hands with soap. This has left me to cook each and every meal for myself, and with market once a week and no refrigeration eating organically, let alone healthfully, is incredibly challenging. When I arrived home for vacation in September after 15 months in Mali many folks were shocked that I wasn’t skinny as a rail since often rural Africa is associated with hunger. Truthfully, in Mali, hunger isn’t so much the issue. Families here always – well almost always- have something to eat, even if just because the culture of hospitality here won’t allow for a neighbor with food to allow another neighbor to not eat. The problem lies with nutrition.
Meat is very expensive in Mali, especially for village folk, so protein has to be found in other sources, mainly peanuts, dried fish, and beans. They don’t however add lots of vegetables to the sauce they make with the peanuts or on top of the beans. To the beans they add an amazing amount of oil and sugar and eat them with bread. To the peanut sauce – oil, salt, and hot peppers. When they do add veggies or meat the men of all ages get first crack at these portions leaving little to none for the women or children – who are the ones actually doing most of the hard labor. Because they are so busy all day every day, they then require a lot of carbohydrate energy, which can easily be found in rice, cous cous, millet, pasta, corn flour or wheat flour. The sad part is that the rice and pasta are white and refined so nutritionally almost fruitless. There are certain sauces that do better than others. The Malians use leaves (bean, onion, or tree) to add nutrition to the sauces, and those are easy to find and therefore cheap, but they aren’t used enough. The most popular is the okra sauce, often with dried fish, then the tomato and onion sauce – which often, strangely, has spaghetti strands mixed in – and then the peanut sauce. If there were enough vegetables and meat (fish, chicken, goat or beef) to give each consumer a proper serving size, things wouldn’t be so bad. The practice, however, is to take a large scoop of millet (with the 4 fingers of your right hand) and dip it quickly in the sauce bowl, retract and eat. This means only a little bit of sauce – and therefore nutrients – get consumed with each ~1/4 cup of toh. With the rice and cous cous dishes the sauce is poured over a huge portion of rice and the veggies and meat sit in a pile in the middle. Since eating is done from a communal bowl, whoever eats the fastest or grabs their share of the goods first ‘wins’! Once the sauce is gone, they fill up with the leftover plain rice at the bottom of the bowl.
All of these things make staying nutritious hard for me while eating a Malian diet. My two favorite meals are rice with peanut sauce and beans. Even when I ask – which I do every time and get a look of pure astonishment – for no oil to be poured on top – there is still quite a good amount used in either preparation or just naturally, as with the peanuts. Since I am forever a guest here, I do get a better portion of the meat and veggies when I do eat with the village, but still its maybe two 2inch chunks of meat and a few pieces of sweet potato, pumpkin, or cabbage. The bigger issue is the very smell of the most nutritious (i.e. leaf filled) sauces cause my stomach to churn, yet alone actually eating it! And, have you noticed that I have yet to mention any fruit? Well that’s likely because on a regular basis the only fruits available to me are oranges (which are really like big limes with very little flavor and even less juice) and bananas. Now I like bananas and all but as my only legitimate option? Rough. I LOVE fruit, especially apples with their delightful crunch and sweetness, so as you can imagine this has been the hardest part of eating in Mali. Well, that and the lack of cheese ;) The thing that changed my life last year was mango season! There are mangos everywhere and they are big, juicy, and perfect. I didn’t even like mangos before coming to Mali and now my mouth waters just thinking about them 6 months later! Its also why I think I really didn’t mind hot season, just sat in my hammock eating mangos all day in the 110 degree weather! I just have to be careful or I could end up developing an allergy as some of my friends did this year from overconsumption!
So as a PCV it is then our job, when possible, to talk with folks about how to make their eating more nutritious without making it lots more expensive. Its important for the people in my region to make beans more often, add dried fish to their sauces, and to use leaves in as many meals as they can. For other regions, like Sikasso, its encouraging gardeners to save some of the beautiful veggies and fruit they produce for their own families instead of just taking in all profit. All of us have the hard task of trying to encourage the families to give the larger portion of protein and veggie portions to the children and women (especially the pregnant ones). Any little bit helps. In my case, I have done a few radio shows on the importance of nutrition for especially young children and pregnant moms. Also, any time I see a child with a reddish tinge to their hair (a sign of malnutrition) I say something to their father – since he's in charge - if he’s around, or mother if not, that they need to give that child extra beans, meat, and leafy vegetables.
Obviously, growing up in Dearborn, I was ignorant about the whole structure of food production and consumption in a farming community, as likely many of you reading this are. It was helpful for me to understand the difference between food insecurity – healthy food not available all year round – and what people experience as true hunger. Nearly every child has a distended belly because the lack of protein prohibits their muscles to form properly, but they are eating, just not correctly. Its very rare to see an overweight person in Mali, but those who are, are seen as wealthy and romantically more desirable. Most of these folks live in the bigger cities or work in positions that don’t require going into the fields and have people to help them make food and clean their homes. Every woman in my compound is incredibly fit despite the oil and carbs because they work so hard! To keep myself from gaining weight here – which would be incredibly easy – I go for jogs in the morning and I ask for no oil and I cook meals for myself – even if they do contain lots of carbs and few veggies (except for right after market day when I overload!). This is all just to show that even things you think are safe to assume about a place can often be misleading. This topic area is a comparatively nice one to try to change minds towards leading healthier lives. The topic is less personally taxing for me as it is not an area of cultural difference that challenges my values. Malians love to talk about money, even if its how poor they are, so its not easy to offend them that way, but it is hard to get them to see how choosing to buy tea and sugar everyday instead of meat or vegetables is hurting the health of their family. Since the men control the money and also get the majority of said nutrition making the point is often hard won, but all the more reason to encourage women to be educated and hold paid positions in their communities!