Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Malnutrition and Famine in Africa

Cassie Oh

We have always heard about the ongoing malnutrition in third world countries like those in Africa. Have we ever thought about what the insider views were like as a researcher or even as an individual living there? Parker Shipton is an anthropologist of African Studies who wrote an article called “African Famines and Food Security: Anthropological Perspectives” explaining and analyzing the issue of famines and their affect on communities and anthropologists’ research. I believe this was a great reading on not only learning about what a famine really is but also knowing how to grasp the problem in a medical anthropology perspective. Its importance on questioning the who, what, where, how & why of the problem and how to tackle with possible answers to these questions strengthens this paper for future plans to take care of it.

The problem I am focusing on is malnutrition and famine in Africa. Because of the harsh climate, famine proceeds which affects the communities who farm for their main source of food. This is a problem because due to the environment deteriorating, basic needs for good health start to vanish as well. Therefore, it is addressed in the medical anthropology perspective through the studying mortality as a result from the famine. The case studies in the article questions the cause, effects, possible preventions and remedies for this issue which are perfect to start out with in studying the issue through  an anthropological perspective. Shipton’s article mainly explains the debates on the causes of famines and analyzes the impacts made upon the communities and anthropologists through case studies. He embraces the idea on how to make possible resolutions through research and a higher organization of methods for farmers in Africa. The goal of this paper is to re-introduce the definition of famine in Africa and bring a better understanding of how to strategize a solution while maintaining the agrarian culture there.

The article not only provided specific details and how famines happen and what we can do for it, but just simply putting out a definition to work with. Shipton did a great job in defining what a famine is according to the perspective of an anthropologist. He mentioned that “[a] definition of famine must denote breadth and severity without suggesting that everyone starves or suffers in the same way or at the same time: I suggest ‘severe shortage or inaccessibility of appropriate food (including water), along with related threats to survival, affecting major parts of a population.’” (Shipton 358). I believe this was a great way to introduce the issue because one should know a proper way to define a problem in order to plan a way to solve it. The fact that he made it more specific helps medical anthropologists know what exactly is causing it and who it affects so that they can conclude with a higher efficacy on reducing or preventing the health problem. Representations of a famine can vary and produce many different ways to go about on helping. Shipton’s definition helped me to focus better on the other factors of a famine and the affects of a larger population. An example of a cultural shift due to the famine is when Shipton mentions the need for loosening the definition of food. Their culture had certain foods that are core to their everyday lives, which were the crops that they grew themselves. However when push comes to shove,  one must use basic survival skills to get by. Shipton explains that although it did not extend to cannibalism, people did search for other edible resources such as wild animals and insects. He emphasized that “[c]ultural rules about foods warp and loosen in hunger, but they do not just wither away” (Shipton 369). Clearly it shows that these people do not just eat anything. Traditional eating may not be the same but individuals still make their way in holding onto their culture. Through this method, individuals still make sure they get their nutrients and general health leveled. Not only will this give a more practical way of possibly preventing famine but it demonstrates that through these survival skills people can endure longer in a crisis like this. They look after their well being along with applying their beliefs into their actions when getting food. This may not work for everyone but I believe it is a start in addressing some strategies to make the issue into a less critical level.

To add to the explanation of the cultural shift and effects in society, it is also a good example on strategizing a more practical way to go about this issue. The article left me with a broader sense of how to attack this problem in a progressive way. I definitely agree Shipton’s analyses on how to reduce and prevent famines. For example, his idea of how to promote the methods of preventing food shortages was a concept called  social investment. “It includes aspects of kinship, friendship, and patronage; and it encompasses both dyadic reciprocities and concentric redistribution (including ceremonial exchanges, and tribute-or tax-fed relief)” (Shipton 368). Not only does it encourage a positive social connection between the community members but it does give a beneficial value to their health overall with attempts to decrease food shortages. I really liked this idea because it demonstrated a mixed view through the medical aspect and social & cultural aspect of it. Through this collected investment within the community, individuals will be able to allocate whatever resources they have in a more organized manner.

Global health and medical anthropology work hand in hand. However, global health focuses more on the health and medical anthropology focuses on social factors along with the health. How a medical anthropologist would frame this problem is through social factors while taking into account the health of the group of people. Global health would specify more on the environment and any biological factors that affect their health. Medical anthropologists would look at those as well as how the issue is affecting the social aspect of their lives. According to World Health Statistics, some indicators they look at include risk factors and main causes of the issue. In a medical anthropology perspective, this issue is addressed through in depth focus on the African culture of farming in relation to the famines occurring as well as the societal effects of it. This article supports this perspective by indicating that culture and society are highly influenced by issues of health, health care and related issues. World Health Statistics would see that the location is one of the main causes of famine, thus resulting in malnutrition and death as huge risk factors. These factors presented how the African agrarian culture has been affected by the specific location of their grounds and the famines that are a consequence of it.

Several ideas that we’ve learned from lecture definitely tie into this article. Concepts like perceptions, representations and power through socioeconomic status helped redefine this issue. The debates on the different reasons of the famine gave a better understand on how important perceptions are. The debates were deciding “…whether to point the finger at natural hazards like droughts and floods, or to blame human oppression, exploitation, and bad management—the human-made ‘political economy of colonialism, markets and states” (Shipton 355) It is clear that there are different views on how this issue came about and of course different attack methods to try and resolve it. The fact that this agrarian culture is a core piece in these people’s lives make it an important factor to consider, which helped my understanding of the concept of socioeconomic status when we discussed about it in class. If farming gave the people what they need for food and water, their status economically would have been fine. However, now with the famine their status has been reduced to a troubling level of survival. Life and death have a very thin line between them with the disappearing fruitful land. In addition to the different perspectives, Janzen’s readings went into detail about the meaning of medical anthropology, which clearly relates to malnutrition going on in Africa. Janzen’s explanation of medical anthropology “…includes the community’s access to the resources that maintain or restore health, or the exclusion from such resources by the community’s power structure” (Janzen 2). This supports the article’s emphasis on the lack of resources as a result of the famine which in the end comes down to people losing their lives. As one can see, these concepts helped wrap my mind around the center of medical anthropology and how this article executed the point of perspectives in a global health issue.

I would say my understanding of the medical anthropology perspective has been more redefined after applying it to the malnutrition and famine issue in Africa. At first I just addressed it as a health issue affecting a large group of people. Now after learning about perceptions and the cultural aspects of it, I can see a bigger picture on the different factors resulting from this famine. The fact that these people have the agrarian culture, it is more difficult for them to resolve food shortages and famine. Farming and growing their own crops have been part of their daily lives and is in general what keeps them alive. To live in a location that is prone to dying land and harsh weather not only puts their lives at risk but makes it harder for them to leave when they already lack resources. This cultural aspect demonstrates how medical anthropologists can think of strategies to help maintain their food system and tradition. In addition to maintaining it, Shipton indicates several strategies on how to go about their cultivation without relocating themselves. “The three most important prevention strategies observed are diversification of livelihood; consolidation of savings into illiquid, indivisible, or incontestable forms; and social investment” (Shipton 364). This is clear that the views from medical anthropology focus on how to sustain health while understanding the social aspect of the problem. Perceptions matter because people outside of Africa who are not familiar with its traditions and lifestyle may not understand why Africans have to deal with agrarian culture when they can transition to another one. Different cultures and methods on keeping oneself healthy demonstrate how important it is to understand these approaches.

Desperation increases as the food shortages persist. “ [Famines] blur cultural distinctions between persons and property, and destitution redraws the lines between the saleable and unsaleable” (Shipton 372). Through this unfortunate shift in tradition, individuals suffer not only physically, but socially as well. Shipton had an outsider perspective when describing an experience with elderly rural Luo women who said “… some of their prostitute daughters in towns had remitted them money or purchased food from towns; some mothers, having once done the same, had even tutored them in the trade to begin with” (Shipton 372). This displays not only the severity of the effects of the famine but an example of a concept of outsider perspective we have discussed in class. Shipton put himself in the situation listening to the women experiencing the famine without fully understanding the meaning of their relation with culture and is told what they do out of the feeling of hopelessness. Scrimshaw’s article on “Culture behavior and health” demonstrates the cultural context on the affects of a group of people’s health. He explains the concept of the outsider perspective which “…conveys a structural approach, or something as seen without understanding its meaning for a culture” (Scrimsaw 44). Scrimshaw’s article connects with Shipton’s experience in observing the African communities in their acts of desperation which starts to temporarily change their cultural ways (which in this case is their value of social interactions).

It is interesting to see how a global health issue can be dissected into different anthropological perspectives while applying the medical aspect to it.  Although malnutrition is nothing new in our world, Shipton’s article presents an easier grasp of the issue through refining the definition of famines and bringing ideas of ways on how to prevent them and help communities get educated on what they can do as well. The importance of this article and paper is to reach out to the public with a more straightforward message on the affects of famine to the people in Africa. It relates to class material on the concept of perception and identifying a global health issue through the analysis of medical anthropology. Will there be much change in the future? There might be or might not be. Nevertheless, our research in combining health and society will only bring us closer to our goal to remove the issue from the global scale at least and to create a better strategy in maintaining the health we need.

Works Cited
Janzen, John M. "Introducing Medical Anthropology." The Social Fabric of Health: An Introduction to Medical Anthropology. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2002. N. pag. Print.
Scrimshaw, Susan. "Culture, Behavior and Health." International Public Health: Diseases, Programs, Systems, and Policies. By Michael H. Merson, Robert E. Black, and Anne Mills. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett, 2006. 43-64. Print.
Shipton, Parker. "AFRICAN FAMINES AND FOOD SECURITY: Anthropological Perspectives." Understanding and Applying Medical Anthropology. 2nd ed. Vol. 19. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Pub., 1998. 353-82. Print.

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