Since arriving in my village, I’ve noticed how thin kids are. Since food is harder to get in my village than others, and since the unemployment rate is higher, almost every single child in my school is thin. Last year, there were 2 kids that would be described as pudgy, and that has more to do with them having poor-fitting uniforms than actually being fat. Few children appear to be at a healthy weight, and the vast majority are bony arms and legs. It’s hard to live in this reality. Adults are typically overweight, but kids are dreadfully skinny. This is due to a diet largely based on pap (cornmeal dish) and for the well-off family, chicken and maybe a veggie.
I had been told that most of the learners didn’t have enough food, and many went to bed hungry or didn’t have breakfast. Each child would get a meal at school, and unlike every other school I’ve visited, only a handful would bring other food with them. The meals are small and basic, just some carbs, veg/fruit, and a protein. At most schools, kids bring a “real” lunch with them, but not at mine. Mma N, my garden counterpart, had said several times that most learners don’t have food at home, and was adamant about giving food boxes from the garden to our OVCs. But I honestly assumed she and other educators were blowing things out of proportion. This is South Africa, kids can’t be starving, right?
Then I started looking and noticing. I saw how few kids brought food from home, how many didn’t buy snacks at school or participate in fundraisers. I noticed brittle, reddish-blond hair, a dead giveaway symptom of Kwashiorkor. I saw how sluggish and out of it kids were in the mornings, before lunch was served. Kids stole our garden veggies. I observed how slowly children developed, and how babies and toddlers didn’t walk or talk. I saw how small the kids really were, and it was heartbreaking.
Hidden hunger, or lack of micronutrients, is a dangerous form of hunger. People don’t necessarily die from it, but it has lifelong effects. Kwashiorkor is a form of malnutrition that comes from not eating enough protein, even though you get enough calories. I had noticed how some kids had reddish or even gold-blonde hair, and found it intriguing. These are black kids, after all, so their hair shouldn’t be red or gold-blonde. I noticed that many kids in Grade R, 1, and 2 had this hair, but only a few older kids did. So when kids start coming to school in Grade R, they are served a complete protein 5 times a week, and it is helping them. The older kids look a little healthier, but the littlest ones are so small, so underdeveloped.
Kwashiorkor and malnutrition stunt children, meaning they do not grow as tall as they should. This typically is lifelong, which may help explain why some people here are so short. With Kwashiorkor, which I think is the prevalent form of malnutrition in my village, children lose muscle mass and do not develop as they should, mentally or physically. They hit milestones late and suffer in school because they are not prepared for the demands of the classroom. Some even get red or gold-blonde hair, which is very brittle. In the worst stages, they will lose their hair and sometimes skin, leaving oozing sores. If a child has Kwashiorkor, it is much more likely that they will suffer from (maybe even die from) another infection, like pneumonia, TB, malaria, or HIV/AIDS.
I’m setting out on a project to weigh and measure the heights of each child in my school. I’m looking for funding through the Department of Agriculture to help the school garden, and I hope this information helps. Since we use the garden to help feed the kids, hopefully they will be more willing to support us if they see the level of malnutrition and stunting. If not, at least I’ll know which kids need the food box the most. I know it will be hard to uncover the extent of the malnutrition in my village, but it needs to be done. Yes, this is South Africa, but people still suffer from malnutrition.