Disclaimer: I am not a nutritionist at all. All I can claim is that I am a mommy raising my children in rural West Africa, living alongside my African sisters. We all share the desire to give our children a good start in life, and this has given me an interest in nutrition. Here's some of my favorite resources and findings. But I am definitely no authority on the subject. Your comments, criticisms and additions are needed at the end of this article!

 

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For someone raising their children in Africa, there is much to be intimidated and discouraged about in the many health fads and diet guidelines that abound in the West. I am sure that chia seeds and walnuts and blueberries and quinoa are good and healthy, not to mention delicious, but they are not options for me. And even if by some fancy logistical footwork and help of Western friends I was able to get some, they would still be out of reach for all my friends who make their meals with whatever they can grow on their farm. When it comes to nutrition, what I am really interested in is foods that are not only nutritious, but cheap and accessible as well. For us, and for the people we are living among.

 

As far as food groups, vitamins, minerals, etc, there is a lot of information out there. I like the following resources:

 

Nutrition for Developing Countries by Felicity Savage King and Ann Burgress

 

Agriculture, Food and Nutrition for Africa by FAO (read HERE) especially chapter 7

 

So how do we make sure our families are getting adequate nutrition? In a way, the answer is quite simple. Eat a variety of foods, whole foods whenever possible, fresh fruit and vegetables and protein. You know the drill.

 

And yet sometimes, that is so much easier said than done. We have a 5 month dry season with no rain. Fresh vegetables are difficult to get. Fruit is sometimes abundant, and sometimes non-available. We live in a small village where you can't buy anything. Occasionally, someone butchers an animal but meat is usually not found. We have no electricity yet and stuff just doesn't keep all that well in 100 F. I am sure that whatever your location is, you have your own set of obstacles. It may be cost, or availability. Shall we resign ourselves to a dismal diet? No!! I firmly believe that with an open mind, ready to learn from our local neighbors and from the many resources available to us, we can eat healthier than we thought at first was even possible.

 

Animal proteins tend to be more expensive, and harder to obtain and store. However, the good news is that you can get protein from plant foods. Whole grains, legumes, seeds, even vegetables can be surprisingly high in protein. The old ideas that these plant proteins need to be carefully combined to form "complete proteins" are now believed to be myths (albeit very long-lived myths that are still endorsed in many books!) It is always best to eat a variety of foods but you don't have to be a scientist to cook nutritiously :)

 

So on to practical life. I have been searching for a cheap, accessible solution to some of these questions. Meat is just not a really dependable option for us though we do enjoy it when we have some. Fish is a little more available. We like eggs and eat them... but we can't haul too many dozen from town. However, in our area, black-eyed peas are commonly grown and are comparatively cheap. FAO has a list of all the nutritional requirements we have, with foods that supply each, and dried beans are listed as significant suppliers of every single one of these: protein, iron, calcium, folic acid, other B vitamins and biotin.
So bring on the beans! I think they deserve the title of Superfood for Africa. Our family eats beans every single day for lunch. I cook on charcoal, so I simply use my breakfast fire to simmer a pot of beans all morning. We usually eat them with a sprinkle of gari (dried ground cassava) and shito (a spicy oil-based sauce that is also common here. One of the main ingredients is tiny dried whole fish that are pounded to powder and are an awesome source of calcium - hello fish bones! I make my own sauce so it is a little less spicy, which helps my little people to eat more of it. I love this sauce since you can make a big batch of it and it keeps without a fridge! One of the few convenience items we have.)
(bonus points!!! having the same thing for lunch every day has been a major stress reducer and brain-space-saver for mommy! :)

 

This is just an example of the kind of thing that I am looking for. It's good for us, AND we can actually get it, AND so can our neighbors and friends.

 

Some of the other items we can easily get our hands on are mangoes, papayas, avocados, and a variety of green leaves. Each of these things have their seasons, but there is usually some kind of leaf available, whether a tree leaf, or what we would call a "weed". One of our favorite leaves is Leaf Amaranth, which is pulled out of gardens in the US and known as red root. This is high in calcium and iron. Cassava leaf is surprisingly high in protein. It really pays to learn from your local friends what "weeds" are edible. I may not be able to have carrots and spinach all the time, but we can get some vitamins all the same. Another good example of this is the baobab fruit... It has a dry pulp with a nice flavor that is very high in vitamin C. In the middle of dry season, when there was very little fresh available, my children were out with the village kids, munching on these fruits.

 

Besides for learning from our local friends, there is a wealth of information out in the big wide world. My favorite source is the ECHO community, an organization devoted to ending world hunger. It is a huge network of people all over the world, working with Agriculture and Nutrition, and they have so many resources available! I spent about a week browsing the ECHO library in Florida while my husband took one of their classes... but i could have stayed a lot longer. My favorite books from them are

 

Amaranth to Zai Holes
Agricultural Options for Small-Scale Farmers

 

Both are full of countless bits of information related to growing, processing and preparing all kinds of nutritious foods. They are available from echocommunity.org. You can also sign up for their newsletter which is always full of such interesting things. From ECHO, we have learned about several incredible, easily grown green vegetables such as Chaya, Katuk, and Malabar Spinach. And of course Moringa. Moringa trees are easy to grow in Africa and the leaves are a true superfood. I keep a supply of dried moringa in the city where we sometimes stay for a break, and my kids have no objection to green smoothies as long as they taste good. (bonus points!! moringa is even one of those fads in the US! Haha, it's not like I really keep up with those even when we are Stateside. :)

 

Just a few more examples. We can't get walnuts and sunflower seeds, but it is very easy to find sesame seeds and a variety of other seeds that I don't know in English. Instead of white rice, we can get locally grown brown rice which adds a boost of fiber and vitamins. Whole grains are common here - corn, sorghum, and millet. Millet is very nutritious and high in protein - why not cook millet instead of rice sometimes? We like coarsely ground millet grits for breakfast. Fonio is another ancient grain available here, high in iron, calcium and protein. By the way, the whole hotly debated gluten question (if it is a concern to you... not trying to open the debate here!) would basically be a non-issue here in our area since the only wheat products are luxury items that are only found in town.

 

Of course, your location may have completely different food options and limitations. Basically, the point of this long story is to get creative and keep an open mind. You may not going to be able to have a big kale salad with olive oil dressing every day... with a grilled chicken breast and mashed cauliflower. But with an open mind and a learner's attitude there is also no reason to exist on white rice alone. Of course a lot more could be said about this subject - and there are myriads of practical questions as far as how to prepare some of these things so my kids (and their parents...) will actually eat them. It's a journey! :) Some final bonus points? Lack of Vitamin D (formed in the human body by exposure to sunlight) is a growing concern in North America, but living in Africa... well... We have things to worry about but that one is crossed off my list. :)

Have you found any creative solutions for your family's nutrition? We would love to hear!!

 

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Lysanne is a mom of two who currently juggles (more or less successfully) at least three cultures in her daily life. She was born in Holland, lived in the US, married an American in Africa, and is currently raising her own tck's (or is it 4ck's?) in a small village in West Africa. This life is often fun, sometimes not, but is certainly interesting, and she is glad to be on this journey with God and with the man of her dreams.Lysanne

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