Foreign Policy Blogs

International Women’s Day: Malnourished Mamas

A boy plays above Fedya's camp. Photo by Allyn Gaestel

Last Spring, while living in Port-au-Prince, I pitched a story about mounting food insecurity to an editor. “Interesting,” the veteran Caribbean reporter said, “maybe go down to that spot in Cité Soleil where they sell mud cakes? Get some color?”

The image of poor Haitians eating dirt in the country’s most notorious slum has intermittently illustrated hunger-stories for years, peaking during food crises. Finding it cliché, I opted against recycling the vignette.

But one golden afternoon soon after, I was in a sprawling tent camp at the edge of Cité Soleil with Fedya, a pregnant 16 year old. She wanted to take a walk, so she led me through the camp, hips swaying heavily, shoulders regally thrown back, wrists clutching her accompanying friend in periodic giggle outbursts. Bypassing corn and mangos, she stopped at a vendor selling five-cent snacks. Precisely and daintily she started munching on a mud cake.

“What is it?” I asked.

“It’s good, try it,” she said, “there’s butter, and earth.” I took a piece; the silty, buttery smooth substance stuck to the roof of my mouth.

Fedya was unquestionably food insecure. Crashing with friends, jobless, partner-less and with her mother hours away, she had gangly, bony limbs that accentuated her nearly bursting belly. But she treated her mud cake like a snack, not a meal. She said the dirt was clean and nutritious, and was imported to the city from the fertile central plateau.

Geogaphy, or the consumption of dirt is widespread internationally, particularly among pregnant women. Some scientists compare supplemental dirt consumption to pre-natal vitamins, saying they provide nutrients like calcium needed for fetal development. Fedya’s craving may well have been spurred by her insufficient diet, which consisted mostly of starches like rice and spaghetti.

Malnutrition is the new frontier in the fight against hunger. The dire consequences of hunger are not solely addressed with more calories, but with better calories, and this is particularly true for pregnant women. Over half of pregnant women around the world are anemic, which can lead to maternal mortality, pre-term delivery, and low birth-weight among babies. Small mamas typically produce small babies, and food insecure households generally raise malnourished children, despite mothers’ best efforts.

Over 500,000 women in developing countries die every year around pregnancy and childbirth and being malnourished makes women more vulnerable to deadly complications.

Fedya survived her delivery, transforming from a quiet teenager to a protective mother in a matter of hours. But at the hospital, as she lay waiting for the doctor to stitch her torn perineium, her first and loudest complaint was of hunger pains.



Allyn Gaestel
Allyn Gaestel

Allyn Gaestel is a journalist focused on international affairs and human rights. She is currently in the United States finishing documentaries from India and the Caribbean. Previously she was based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and earlier worked as a United Nations correspondent in New York. Her background is in political science, public health, women's issues, and development. She has worked in Haiti, India, Senegal, Mali, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mauritania and the Bahamas. You can follow Allyn on twitter @AllynGaestel

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