Wednesday, 17 July 2013

The Ironic South African Neighbors - Malnutrition and Obesity

I never anticipated finding any degree of economic diversity within the black townships in Cape Town. I had always imagined that life in the township fell under a single economic classification. That being said, after spending a substantial amount of time in two black townships on the outskirts of Cape Town, Philippi and Langa, I began to realize that these initial assumptions were far from the truth.

These evident economic discrepancies first came to my attention when I observed vast differences in the daily diet consumed by individuals within the townships. 
Philippi and Langa look very similar. Both townships have broken streets lined with temporary housing, spaza shops, barbers, and fruit stands. In general, they “felt” very comparable. 


Initially, I just assumed almost everyone was “poor” in black townships. And in my mind, it followed that everyone must be hungry. At the time when this was my central belief, I had been volunteering in Philipi with an organization called Ons Plek for about three weeks. This program in Philippi models an after-school daycare/tutoring program, with the primary intention of keeping at-risk youth off of the streets and in school. The program accepts children whose parents are financially strained, sick, or otherwise excusably preoccupied.

Everyday, when the students come to the program, they are given with two sandwiches – one butter sandwich, and one jam sandwich. (right)

As soon as the students are called to eat, they run at full speed towards the corrugated steel shack where the sandwiches have been prepared. The food is then consumed faster than it was distributed. It is so evident that these kids are always hungry. I am told that for some of these children, the food distributed at the program is their only meal of the day. This meal has little to no nutritional value. I would argue that if food were not provided for the children at this program, no children would attend.

My experience with the children in Philippi undoubtedly worked to form my initial assumptions surrounding life in the township. However, I soon found that my initial assumptions pertaining to life in the township were far from the overarching reality. In other words, living in the township does not imply that families cannot afford to put food on the table.

My Home-Stay "Mom" and I
This became clear during my home-stay in Langa. I stayed in a small home: two-bedrooms, one bathroom, a small kitchen, and a small living room. I would say it was an average size home compared to the rest that I saw in Langa. During my stay at this home, I was offered at least FIVE meals a day. If I didn’t eat all of my food my host mother would ask me why, and regardless of my answer, she would then tell me to eat more. I was actually in physical pain by the end of my stay in Langa. One morning, I woke up and went to the neighbor’s house. When I walked in, I was offered an enormous slice of cake . . . at 10am. In no way, were these people starving. That is for certain. In fact, it was visibly evident that a large portion of this community was overeating, leading to problems with obesity.

This story just serves to highlight two main points:

1.)   There is a great degree of economic diversity within the township. In other words there is a significant financial range within the lower economic class.
2.)   Both malnutrition and obesity are huge problems within these townships. It is very ironic how both of these issues present themselves within similar demographics. It would be interesting to further investigate the reasons behind this reality.

-Alison Burklund

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