- While HIV, drought and food scarcity normally create most international headlines about Swaziland, the Swazi Ministry of Agriculture has singled out a new health hazard causing great problems. Fast food is sweeping the Kingdom and causing hypertension, obesity and diabetes among the population. Wholesome traditional foods could solve a multitude of problems, the Ministry holds.
- People have turned away from indigenous food and now are eating fast food, complains Nikiwe Dlamini, a government home economist. "Rural people are buying packaged food in town, such as canned fish, corned beef, packaged soups, chicken stock and soft drinks." The result, according to Mr Dlamini, is a set of new health problems.
According to Peter Lowrey from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), "a revolution in diet" is indeed sweeping the southern African Kingdom, and "causing health problems." FAO recently sponsored a workshop in Swaziland to increase awareness of the fast food problem, which so far has mainly caused large health problems in the rich world.
The Swazi Ministry of Agriculture has now started fighting this trend. In a Swazi village community centre, home economists and extension workers are field testing a questionnaire on traditional food crops, their preparation and qualities. Elder farmers enthusiastically describe the properties of a long list of traditional beans, peas, nuts, cereals and pumpkins - foods that they have cooked in the traditional way for a hearty group lunch.
- We are cataloguing this knowledge and trying to find out how we can instil it in the population again and especially how we can save and multiply the seeds - they are disappearing, explains Simeon Nxumalo, an extension worker who led the focus group in the small Swazi village of Luve.
According to FAO, the government initiative is "timely", since an estimated 40 percent of Swazis - those living with the AIDS virus - "need wholesome traditional foods more than ever." Nutritionists say such foods are the first medicine for those with the disease. Fast food will just not do as it is deprived of important nutrients.
Zodwa Mamba, a Swazi ministry agronomist working in another part of the country, specialises in legumes, the classic sustainer of the poor. "I was looking for improved varieties and tolerance to disease, to help farmers increase yields," she told FAO.
- But by 1992, acreage was going down and with severe drought, the farmers were eating even the seeds, says Ms Mamba. "Seed companies said it wasn't worth it for them to multiply legume seeds since farmers don't buy from them regularly." Thus, she began encouraging farmers to form seed associations to multiply seed for local sale.
Rebecca Ntondo Shabangu, one of nine members of one such association, says its seeds are popular: "We can't meet the demand especially for one local variety of groundnut. Last year we had more than 50 customers and sold 70 kilos of seed."
Ms Mamba was one of 25 participants invited to the LinKS-sponsored workshop in Swaziland. FAO's LinKS project is a regional effort in Southern Africa aimed at raising awareness about how rural men and women use and manage biological diversity. The project is called LinKS because it explores the linkages between local knowledge systems, gender roles and relationships, food provision, and the conservation and management of agro-biodiversity.
- The farmers had lots of knowledge that was new to me, Ms Mamba told FAO. She adds she had learned "I shouldn't just impose what I know" but rather interact with the farmers. Traditional knowledge, just as fast food, is getting modern in Southern Africa just as in the North.
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