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The "middle-class curse" among Africans Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by Norma, Kenya Sep 5, 2009
Culture , Environment , Health   Opinions
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The I have received several questions concerning the “middle-class curse," as cited in the book, A HEALTHY YOU: Tame Africa's Child Malnutrition. The book, available at www.nutritionafrica.com , documents the feeding dilemma caused by a predominantly maize-based diet. Maize as a dietary staple causes the diseases known as pellagra (which manifests as kwashiorkor and marasmus in children).

Pellagra weakens the body's systems, including the digestive system; digestive enzymes are adversely affected, with lactase (whose deficiency causes lactose intolerance) the earliest affected. The malnutrition (both protein and micro nutrient) is heritable, and responsible for weakened immune systems, and the sociocultural decline that is most evident amongst the middle class. This article examines this "middle-class curse" in some detail.

There is a growing realization that the middle class in Africa is shrinking, because of poverty, the stresses of habitability (e.g. insecurity, a high burden of dependents, job stresses), diseases and deaths, migrations, etc. A small segment of select population groups seem to thrive on the continent. These include the political class, top civil servants, top professionals, the business community and, increasingly, drug barons.

In the USA, there is speculation that the black American community is the only large community not replacing itself (because of a higher death rate compared to the birth rate). Black babies have been reported to develop malnutrition when put on formula, "Black women...loose more children through marasmus (and kwashiorkor), often fatal diseases related to infant formula feeding" (African Diaspora: African Origins and New World Identities). A study conducted in Tanzania had the same conclusions. This malnutrition robs the affected of their true potential, thus, contributing to the “middle-class curse.”

The middle class are the most exposed to the stresses of upward mobility; they are therefore the trendsetters in any community In Africa, many middle-class mothers have to wean their babies on to formula/ cow’s milk early, in order to go back to work. This puts the babies at risk of increased malnutrition, because of the impact of heritable lactose intolerance In addition, because the middle-class tend to have a little more money to spare, many tend to invest in "prestige foods" that may have no nutritional value, like soft drinks (often sweetened by corn syrup), transfats (which have been linked to the development of heart disease) and non-fruit juices (usually termed "real fruit juice" by advertisers).

The chemicals in such juices (sweeteners, flavors, color, stabilizers, preservatives etc) are an unnecessary toxic load, which the body has to metabolize using already scarce nutrients. Middle-class children are more likely than poorer children to get all their immunizations (another metabolic burden), and they have access to a richer protein diet. Protein in excess of metabolic capacity (due to micronutrient deficiencies) causes disease. Worse, the staple maize meal in urban centers is often processed, and important nutrients removed for other commercial uses, e.g. for corn oil production, cattle feed, etc.

Therefore, in spite of better incomes (which are, however, not enough to afford, say, real oranges or fruit juice), the middle-class diet tends to be inferior, when compared to the village diet. In the village, babies breast-feed longer, and the diet, while simple, tends to be wholesome, fresh, and more varied (this was especially the case before hybrid maize interfered with crop diversity).

Maize has downgraded the nutritional status of African populations; this is evidenced by the feeding dilemma described in A HEALTHY YOU: Tame Africa's Child malnutrition. The advent of HIV/ AIDS exposed this dilemma when it was realized that babies could not thrive on formula, yet they could not be breast-fed their mothers' milk for the fear of passing the virus.

The milk of African mothers has been found to be low in niacin, an important determinant of underdevelopment, especially in immune systems. No wonder milk from white mothers is needed to save the lives of very ill African orphans. The impact of childhood malnutrition of this magnitude is the decline in potential. Charismatic leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Julius Nyerere etc are now scarce; adult behavior also leaves a lot to be desired. According to Mazrui, "Africa is now experiencing a declining political maturity."

Urbanized Africans in Africa and in the Diaspora were the first to be heavily affected by AIDS. The offspring of this generation of Africans are not achieving their true potential. In fact, many are pre-occupied with escapist pursuits like substance abuse, conduct disorders and general idleness. Some have been accused of "fleeing into whiteness," with obvious disdain for their communities of origin. In most cultures the middle-class stimulates economic growth and cultural renewal.. That Africa's middle-class is preoccupied with escapist pursuits, or simple survival has led some people to view these features collectively as "the middle-class curse."

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I am an African community health worker interested in cultural practices. This is because I have come to believe that culture is a foundation for development. I am especially interested in food culture for the same reasons.
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