Ranking 182nd on the Human Development Index (the 6th lowest ranking on the planet,) Mali is recognized as one of the most nutritionally unstable and under developed countries in the world. About four in 10 children under the age of 5 are underweight, and one in four people are as well. As a study from 2014 indicates, over 1.5 million people are not sustained by a regular supply of food.
This landlocked country is often afflicted by droughts and insect infestations, which deplete the crops upon which they often rely on for food. While malnutrition in Mali afflicts the entire population, it is the second largest killer of children under the age of 5.
In her intensive ethnographic study of Magnambougou, Mali, “Dancing Skeletons: Life and Death in West Africa,” however, Dr. Katherine Dettwyler suggests that rather than poverty, a lack of education surrounding nutrition is the main root of malnutrition in infants and young children. It is the mothers’ misunderstanding that it is not simply enough to give children food, but in the early stages of development, it is crucial to distribute the right kinds of food.
On one of her visits to Mali, Dettwyler examined a little girl with kwashiorkor, of which the primary symptom is swelling all over the body and particularly in the abdomen. The disease is a result of protein deficiency combined with a high caloric intake and often appears when the child cannot sustain the same level of protein intake after being weaned.
The mother who summoned Dettwyler called the disease “funu bana,” meaning “swelling sickness,” and believed her daughter caught it from another child. She begged Dettwyler for medicine to cure her daughter despite Dettwyler’s assurance that all her daughter needed was to have a higher quantity of protein slowly introduced to her diet.
Dettwyler also offers an anecdote regarding misconceptions about nutrition that occurred when she brought her young daughter Miranda to Mali. When the two were eating with some of the villagers and Dettwyler gave her piece of chicken to her daughter, she was immediately questioned. One man explained that good food should not be wasted on the young, because they have their whole lives to eat, while the old should be honored because they will soon die. Dettwyler, however, tried to explain that children should be the ones to receive the better food because they need the protein to fuel their growth.
Moreover, a large reason for the high child mortality rate due to malnutrition is because adults often have trouble identifying the signs of malnutrition. In her ethnography, Dettwyler notes that “people simply get used to the way children look. If the typical child is mildly to moderately malnourished, then that becomes the standard… normal is what you’re used to” In addition to providing emergency relief, Dettwyler, along with Action Against Hunger, argue that the key to combating malnutrition in Mali is education, and that teaching Malians how to identify malnourished children will be an enormous step in the process.
– Jordyn Horowitz