This is not the sort of news that makes the headlines and plays big in the public space. Because it is the story of the poor. It is the story of the children of the poor. It is the story about the future that might be denied the children of the poor. Because of food.
Not many of us like to read such stories; fewer of us still are willing to see the problems of the poor as the problems and the responsibilities of the rich. This is about food, as in eba with watery vegetable soup without meat or fish. It is about the crippling lack of capacity on the part of the poor to feed well or feed at all; and the repercussions this has on their lives as well as the lives and the future of their children.
I am prepared to hazard the guess that not many of us are aware of this silent killer on the prowl in our country. I am talking about what the experts call malnutrition and under-nutrition. The best definition of this is to say that what our children eat and what they don’t eat have serious consequences for how they grow up and what kind of brains are eventually nurtured by their food; or lack thereof. For the poor, food has one and only one primary objective: to fill the belly and keep hunger outside the gate. The nuances of nutrition and balanced diet make little sense to them.
From what the experts are telling us, our country faces the frightening prospects of nurturing men more suitably equipped for manual labour than for them to become say, doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists, professors and inventors. Muscles sans the nurturing of the brains and the intellect?
Here are some of the grim statistics. Nigeria has an estimated population of 171 million people. Thirteen per cent of this handsome population or ten million children are malnourished and under-nourished. It means that while such basic food as gari (smoked) eba, tuwo, amala, akpu and starch are good enough for filling the stomach they do not really prepare our children for the greater demands of modern development, brainwise.
Think about the figure again. The number of our malnourished children is more than the population of at least three African countries combined. That should give you some idea about the national challenge this represents for us and our country.
Mrs Zainab Ahmed, minister of state, ministry of budget and national planning, said last week that malnutrition had become a silent national emergency. She said, “Nigeria is home to the third largest number of chronically undernourished children globally with about 2.5 million children under five years affected by severe acute malnutrition.”
We see some of these malnourished children on the streets of our major towns and cities daily. Their distended stomachs, brittle ribs and stick feet and hands, are a dead give away. But the real horror is in the invisible consequences of malnutrition. Malnourished and under-nourished children who survive into adulthood might become mentally retarded, say the experts. Instead of riding into the sunrise of their lives, they ride into the sunset ere their lives begin.
To quote Ahmed again: “Malnourished children tend to have lower intelligent quotient and impaired cognitive ability with resultant negative effect on their performance in school and productivity in later life.”
Talk of a silent national emergency.
Professor Babatunde Oguntona, former president of the Nutrition Society of Nigeria, told a nutrition symposium in Lagos recently that the implication of the 13 per cent of our population facing the grim prospects of being mentally retarded is that not all of them would head for Aro in Abeokuta; some of them would even head into our legislative houses as law-makers.
How are we even sure some of them are not in those hallowed chambers already where the constitution obliges them to make laws for the good governance of the country and parts thereof? Nor can we be sure that some of our governors strutting the political stage drunk with the power to do evil were not malnourished children who made it to adulthood and were imposed on us by the political godfathers in our reprehensibly flawed leadership recruitment process.
Some years ago, some Nigerians were so worried by the behaviour of our public men and women that they argued for a national policy to compel all those seeking public offices, elective or appointive, to undergo psychiatric assessment. All we did was chuckle. But it seems to me that if we had adopted such a policy, the madness of public officers abusing public trust and accumulating conscienceless fabulous wealth at the expense of the nation, would probably today be the exception, not the rule. And then, we might bring corruption down to the manageable level of ten per cent that Major Nzeogwu complained of 51 years ago.
The experts warn this could get worse. Sunday Okoronkwo, a project manager with the Civil Society on Scaling Up Nutrition in Nigeria, told the same symposium that there could actually be more than 11 million children whose nurture has reduced their capacity for vertical advantage. Maybe not all dwarves, as in King Pago, are malnourished, but apparently all those with stunted height have no reasons to thank their nurture.
Grimmer statistics. Remmy Nweke, national co-ordinator of MeCAM, said, “…. the number of Nigerian malnourished children is a big chunk in the world which accounted for over 2.5 million who are suffering from severe acute malnutrition as at the end of July 2017. This is exclusive of others who may be suffering various forms of nutrition, quoted at between 11,000,000 and 13,000,000.”
It would be unfair to hold eba, amala, tuwo and akpu entirely responsible for our third place on the global malnutrition league. Most of us were brought up on them before we cottoned on to caviar, salad, chicken peri-peri, steak and lamb chops. The problem is, as they say, better soup na money kill am.
We actually have a ten-year old National Policy on Nutrition. It was re-launched in 2016. I would imagine that the school feeding programme launched by the Obasanjo administration in response to the problem would be part of this. Nigeria has never lacked thoughtful policies to address its critical problems. But these policies often become victims of official abandonment, corruption and the lack of will to implement them. More than ten years after its launch, the school feeding programme is moribund in most of the states, the fund for it having been diverted to areas of immediate political interests by the state governors whose children are in school abroad.
Here is the clincher. Okoronkwo, whom I quoted earlier, told the nutrition symposium, that Nigeria’s “action plan on nutrition for 2014 through 2019 remains largely unfunded.” He said that “Nigeria’s $100 million counterpart funding of the policy is hardly captured in the annual federal budgets.” He said the current federal budget “has no provision for the plan which expires in 2019.”
God help us.