“Have you ever gone to sleep hungry, not knowing if you would find any food the next day?”
It’s a powerful question. If you’ve never lived in poverty, this sort of hunger is an alien experience. It causes an anxiety that not only eats at your mind, but literally eats at your body as well. It’s exhausting. It reduces your ability to focus, to make long-term decisions, to care for others. It’s an oppression that limits your freedom to reach your full potential and instead restricts you and traps you in a cycle of living hand to mouth.
In Liberia, one out of every five households is food insecure. But this national statistic obscures the huge gap between the situation in the capital (where food insecurity is less frequent) and other counties. The disparity is most severe in Bomi county, where over half of its households are food insecure. That’s every other household! (Source)
Food insecurity like this has very serious physical consequences. Children with chronic malnutrition become stunted, causing irreversible brain damage, delays in normal growth patterns, and increases in the risk of chronic diseases later in life. In Liberia, the national stunting rate is 36%. Again, this national statistic obscures the reality at the county level. In Grand Gedeh county, for example, almost half of the population experiences chronic malnutrition. That’s almost every other child! (Source)
So what if I told you that there’s a native tree growing here that has leaves packed with micronutrients and a protein density that rivals soy?
Exciting thought, right? It could be the answer to many of our problems here! This tree is called moringa oleifera — you might remember that it’s the tree I planted outside my Peace Corps house in Marshall:
Gram for gram, moringa leaves contain more Vitamin A than carrots, more calcium than milk, more iron than spinach, more Vitamin C than oranges, more potassium than bananas, and a protein quality that rivals milk and eggs. (Source)
It grows FAST too. About ten feet every year!
The benefits don’t stop there. Different parts of the moringa tree are used in traditional medicine in India and China and other parts of the world (WebMD has a laundry list of conditions the tree supposedly can address).The seeds can be used to produce a healthy oil, and can even purify water.
It’s hard to believe that malnutrition is so prevalent in Liberia when moringa is freely available. Why are people malnurished with a tree like this literally in their backyard?
It’s simple. People don’t eat moringa here. Why? Based on what I’ve seen, people aren’t used to it, so they don’t eat it. Change is hard.
But that was a difficult answer for me to swallow. Surely there’s a catch? I resolved to start eating moringa every day to see what would happen in myself and in my family. My younger siblings knew of a moringa tree in the bush by our house, so I had them start to collect a branch for me to eat every day. They’d bring it back, strip the leaves off, and mix them in my bowl of rice while it was still hot:
My Liberian family thought I was crazy. “You’re eating raw leaf?!” They were afraid to try it, perhaps because cassava leaves and potato greens (which are commonly eaten here) have significant cyanide content if they are left uncooked.
I countered by telling them that if they really wanted to visit America someday (and everyone wants to go to America), they needed to be willing to try new things. “What if someone gives you a bowl of raw leaves in America for your food?” I asked them, “In America, we call that a salad. Will you refuse to eat it?”
They still seemed skeptical, so I had them look at the pictures in an American cookbook they happened to have lying around their house. “Raw leaf!” I said as I turned the pages and looked at the pictures, pointing out all the leaves Americans put in our diet.
I told them that eating moringa leaves was just like eating meat. I told them that, contrary to the commonly held Liberian belief that white rice meets almost all nutritional needs, they would get “dry” (Liberian English for weak and underfed) if they ate white rice alone each day. But if they added moringa to that, I said, they would get “strong.” My family liked the idea, but nobody seemed to be willing to put it into practice.
It took a while for my family to realize that I was serious about eating moringa every day. But eventually we got into a routine, and I started feeling great. The moringa leaves tasted good in my food too! With a cup of leaves added to my rice, I could eat about half of the rice and soup I usually ate in a meal and still feel stuffed.
My mother thought something was wrong with me. “Why aren’t you eating?” she’d ask me. I’d tell her that I was eating, but thanks to the moringa, I needed less rice to fill me. Again, this was confusing for her at first (Liberians love their white rice!). But I explained about the different building blocks in foods: carbohydrates, protiens, fats — how rice was a major carbohydrate, but we need protein in the form of meat or moringa in order to be strong.
I went on to say that meat was expensive, so incorporating moringa into our diet here could lead to major savings in food costs. She was very receptive, asking questions and nodding as I talked. I told her how many fewer people would have to go hungry if they cultivated and ate moringa. Nobody would have to be “dry” in Liberia.
She laughed. “That kind of change is too hard”, she told me. I asked for an explanation; I thought it must be possible somehow.
Her answer completely changed my perspective. She told me that when war started in Liberia, she would go to the market and buy fishheads instead of regular meat so that she could stretch her money further. She would scrimp and save to make ends meet. But she got tired after years of saving and never seeing results, she explained. Saving for the future seems pointless when you don’t see a future. When you might die from a stray bullet tomorrow, suddenly your life today seems more important. And so if you get money today, you spend it so that you feel like you’re coming up in the world, even if the feeling only lasts for a day.
Change takes energy. And when you’re living hand to mouth, energy is a luxury. From the outside, we can identify all kinds of ways that people living in poverty could possibly improve their situation. But we need to understand that these people are hurting. When you’re struggling just to see the next day, any future beyond that fades. When you don’t know how much time you have left, you spend all you have in the present moment to ease suffering for you and your loved ones.
This mindset is not unique to poverty in Liberia; it’s a shared struggle throughout the world. It’s in your backyard too. I recently read this except from a book chronicling one woman’s experience living in poverty in America, and her take on “why poor people do things that seem so self-destructive”. (I highly recommend reading the whole thing). This quote stood out to me:
“I make a lot of poor financial decisions. None of them matter, in the long term. I will never not be poor, so what does it matter if I don’t pay a thing and a half this week instead of just one thing? It’s not like the sacrifice will result in improved circumstances; the thing holding me back isn’t that I blow five bucks at Wendy’s. It’s that now that I have proven that I am a Poor Person that is all that I am or ever will be.”
So I told my mother that I believed her situation was changing. Even though Ebola set Liberia back for a season, Liberia is on its way forward. Her husband is building a shop in her yard; we’re going to start business there soon. We could start saving for the future — we could work together now to try to change our situation.
About two weeks after I had this conversation with my mother, I noticed flecks of green in my little siblings’ bowls. Moringa! On the days we weren’t buying meat, my mother had started adding moringa to everybody’s rice, not just mine. I ran to her and gave her a big hug.
Then about a month after that, I walked past my little sister preparing our food. “Moringa finished”, she told me. “What do you mean, moringa finished?” I asked her. It turns out, we ate the whole tree. There was no moringa left. We were back to square one.
It seems my mother was right after all: Long term change is always harder than it looks from the outside.
(Update 1/9/16: we found a different tree, and this time we’re pacing ourselves as we eat it. Today I happened to overhear my little sister day while eating some moringa, “the moringa sweet-o” which is Liberian English for “this moringa is delicious”. Yay! Music to my ears!!)