When’s the last time you saw a food product advertised as “high calorie”?
Our respective attitudes towards food more or less sums up the difference between the Congo and the United States. Back home, we’re obsessed with counting every calorie, making sure we don’t consume too many trans-fats, and getting an hour of exercise six days a week.
Here, as elsewhere in Africa, things are a little different.
Last week at La Beauté, which is as close as Bukavu gets to a supermarket (the name means “The Beauty,” but Congolese French being what it is, the pronunciation comes out more like, “Le Bootie.” I giggle every single time.), I saw a stack of products that I knew I had to have: TAMU cookies. I was going to take a picture of them and say something about how you know it has to be disgusting if the Aggies are involved. I picked up a packet (they only cost about 60 cents), brought it home, stuck it in the pantry, and didn’t think about it much more.
This weekend, I decided to see just how good TAMU cookies are, and noticed a familiar name and logo on the box. I took a closer look and realized that I was missing something important. It turns out that these cookies are produced by Centre Olamé. Mathilde had told me about them without mentioning the name. The idea behind these cookies is to provide families with a high-protein, high calorie, inexpensive nutritional supplement. The production of the cookies also provides several people with jobs.
Malnutrition is one of the most pervasive, chronic, and difficult-to-solve problems in the eastern Congo. Many families here eat only one meal per day, and that often happens in shifts: the adults eat one day, the children eat the next. That’s what happens when poverty is so abject. “Njala, njala,” the children say to you as they beg in the street. “I’m hungry.” And you know they mean it. Hunger - real hunger, the kind that means you are starving to death - hurts. Malnutrition is physically painful. It makes sense when you think about it: once your body has broken down all its stores of fat, it moves on to muscle and whatever else it can find in a desperate search for nutrition. That can’t feel good.
It shouldn’t be this way. The Kivus were once the breadbasket of Congo. The volcanic soil, especially in the north, is incredibly fertile, producing three harvests a year in some places. There are two regular, predictable, annual rainy seasons, and the high elevation and cool temperatures mean that there aren’t as many bugs as there are in so much of the rest of Africa.
But you can’t grow crops when rebels drive you from your home every few months. You can’t sell your harvest in markets when you’re trying to recover from rape by soldiers. You can’t plant if you’re stuck in a camp for internally-displaced persons, or if you’re a refugee in Tanzania or Rwanda or Burundi. You can’t feed your family off the land if you’ve had to flee to Bukavu, if you’re living ten-to-a-room in the slums of the Kadutu neighborhood. You can’t feed your children a balanced diet if you can’t find a job in a place with 90% unemployment in the formal sector.
Thus the Catholics of Bukavu make TAMU biscuits, which are marked as “rich in proteins and in calories.” One little 200 gram box has almost 5,000 calories. Because if you live here, that's what you need.