For the most part, Mercy Ships is a surgery ship. Everything on board is designed around the ability to get highly skilled surgeons and hospital workers into impoverished countries to be able to complete difficult surgeries in an efficient way. However, in recent years a lot of thought has gone into how we can leave something more lasting in the countries we visit that will make them stronger even after we are gone. We do this through our Medical Capacity Building efforts including the following and others:
- WHO Checklist team (go off ship teaching a process/method/checklist for doctors in country to cut down on surgery related deaths)
- Mentoring of local doctors on board through training and observation
- The Agriculture Program (aimed at teaching local people sustainable, organic, affordable agricultural techniques which improve nutrition and overall health of the nation, focused on better eating)
In this blog post, I focus in on our Agricultural Program here in Cameroon.
The Problem: Malnutrition from Unvaried Diet
To understand why nutrition is important, you first need to understand a culture and a national diet that is very unlike our own back home. At home our staple foods are corn, wheat and rice. These carbohydrates in our diet make up most of the energy food which we eat in almost every meal. However, we supplement this heavily with fruits, vegetables, yogurt, milk, meat, and many other things. We can do this because we can easily afford to purchase expensive products and produce from around the world. Here in Africa, the staple foods are cassava roots, corn, plantains and various yams. Just like back home, if we eat only staple foods (bread for every meal) then we will become vitamin deficient, and develop deficiency induced diseases. So that’s what happens in many places in the world when people don’t know that it is important to supplement their diets. Think about the diet that many kids in the US would prefer – they don’t want to eat vegetables, they just want bread and pasta and macaroni, etc. for every meal, all the time. Our bodies react positively to the sugars we get from carbohydrates, but unfortunately we don’t have the same automatic feedback for green leafy vegetables. So many people in developing countries just eat simple staple food for every meal. Sometimes it’s because they don’t have the money for anything else, and sometimes it’s because they don’t know that they need it. Thanks Mom for forcing me to eat that broccoli.
Here’s some pictures of Cassava plant, also known as Manioc. A ground-up variety of this is sold in the states as Tapioca.
Cameroonians really love their cassava. There are vast fields of this stuff, in every part of the country we’ve been in – both in Benin, and here in Cameroon. It’s everywhere. It is a hardy plant that grows well in the African sweltering heat.
According to Feedipedia.org
“Cassava tubers can be eaten boiled, mashed, deep-fried, etc. and there are many food products based on cassava, such as tapioca (cassava starch), fufu (cassava flour boiled in water) and garri (fermented cassava mash), the [last two are some of the most popular] foods in West and Central Africa. Most cassava is produced by smallholder farmers living in marginal and fragile environments, and particularly on erosion-prone, acid and infertile soils. This ability to produce on poor soils, where most other crops would fail, has given cassava a reputation as a safeguard against food scarcity.”
So it’s great that cassava will grow when nothing else will – so you don’t starve. However, here’s what happens (photo right) when people don’t eat their green leafy vegetables – kids let this be a lesson to you. One of the things that can happen with Vitamin D and Calcium deficiencies is “Soft Bones” or Osteomalacia, leading to a lot of the bent leg cases that we see in the hospital in Mercy Ships. And we do see a lot of these cases, our whole Orthopedics program is designed to fix the kinds of bone problems that we find, largely due to malnutrition.
For your curiousity, below are a few lists I found online of foods that Calcium is in, again- for us it’s easy to find all these sources at the store, but imagine yourself as a poor farmer who only eats cassava, it is a much bigger challenge for them to find these…but not impossible:
Again, when I say “poor farmer” I really mean close-to-zero income. Subsistence farming really means just growing barely enough for one’s own family – perhaps trying to save up for one more chicken or one extra plot of land, and you are relying on the rain, wind, and weather. When you add to that lack of education and literacy, then it becomes fairly difficult for the next generation of people to break out of that same living condition. Think of the things you learned from your parents’ way of living. Think of all the things you still do and say that you picked up from them, including money management (or lack), goal setting (or lack), and future planning (or lack). Now think about how hard it would be to try to suddenly change all of the things you copied from them and do something different – it’s not easy and most people here and there, end up doing many of the same things our parents did.
Mercy Ships’ Agriculture program & Mr. Eliphaz
On board there are a pair of brothers from Benin Africa who are both an integral part of what Mercy Ships is doing. One brother Emmanuel is one of our Biomedical Technicians, fixing and managing hospital technical equipment on board. The other brother Eliphaz runs the Agricultural program off the ship. In each new country, he meets with local people and finds a plot of land to use as a teaching ground. Here in Cameroon, he found a location in the town of Edea, about 3 hours southeast of the ship. He lives there for most of the field service, teaching his students better ways of agriculture. The students here in Cameroon are themselves agriculture teachers who will go back out to remote places all around Cameroon and teach others the same techniques. See an earlier post about the Agriculture site in Benin: http://morrisonsonmercyships.info/2017/05/30/cultivating-the-cultivators/
Well I don’t want to say too much on the subject, but overall I was really impressed with seeing the agricultural program and all the things that Eliphaz is doing. I believe that this program is really important for Mercy Ships and an integral part in making a lasting impact on the countries we visit.