Silently starving and malnourished in peace

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There comes a time in the life of any nation when silence is no longer golden and when there is a fine line between silence and betrayal. That time has descended upon us as a nation to address our challenges with equanimity.
These challenges include, among others, the grinding poverty, degradation and destitution facing the majority of Namibians. Ours is a very small nation in terms of population, albeit with vast spaces of land.

It is therefore sometimes interesting, if not amazing, when the very obvious become instant discoveries. When some in our midst marvel at information regarding the poverty afflicting the majority in our societies, one wonders as to whether we live in the same country or if there are two Lands of the Brave – one for the elites and the other for the followers.

A few days ago, the Minister of Poverty Eradication and Social Welfare, Zephania Kameeta, said for a country without war, the 42% malnutrition rate in Namibia – as revealed by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) – is shocking.

The Minister said many commendable things that deserve to be applauded. Kameeta is respected for his honesty and leadership qualities and the nation has high hopes that he will deliver tangible outcomes during his tenure in his current portfolio.

There are, however, fundamental red herrings that make this story a sad reading. Firstly, we do not need FAO to tell us that 42% of our blood relatives are victims of malnutrition. Shameful as it is, it is not rocket science that the majority of Namibians live in abject poverty. Surely, even the wealthiest of our people pass by poverty-stricken Namibians daily.

One cannot fathom the thought that there are some among us who are blind to the poverty prevalent in our country. There is no village, settlement or town, no matter how remote, that has not been visited by our leaders. One wonders how the social disconnect has manifested itself in our societies to the extent that we get shocked by the realities facing the majority in our country.

Implicitly, you cannot lead a nation that you do not know, let alone be entrusted with a portfolio whose components are alien to you. It should be common cause, therefore, to assume that our leaders know the people they are leading, as well as their circumstances, socially, politically and economically.

Leaders should have a bond with those they lead. Once there is a disconnect between the leaders and the led, then we will forever be shocked by every revelation of the various circumstances afflicting the common folk in our societies. It is as simple as that. At the rate we’re going, it seems we should brace ourselves for more shocking revelations.

Facts are that our living costs are unaffordable, not only for the 42% facing malnutrition, but for more than 94% of those employed who cannot afford to take care of the malnourished 42% on their meagre salaries.

The cost of living is high: food, housing, potable clean water, electricity, healthcare services, sanitation and other essential services, are unaffordable, even to the employed. Therefore, access to a healthy diet will remain a pipe dream, unless the management of our resources and the focus of our leadership wholeheartedly embraces the mantra of our President to ensure that no Namibian is left out.

One hopes that our leaders will not rely on the “We Need Food” movement as a weapon to fight malnutrition and hunger. These piecemeal measures are not sustainable. In fact, they exacerbate the problem. They provide temporary relief through handing out a daily balanced nutritional meal to the needy, but the victims of malnutrition require sustainable solutions, not hand-outs.

Our current food systems face a tough challenge to ensure food security, as well as a balanced diet for everyone in the country. For us to overcome hunger and malnutrition we do not necessarily need to rely on simply increasing the quantity of available food.

Increase in food quantity should go hand-in-glove with an increase in food quality. Availability and affordability of quality food is key to combating malnutrition. Producing and creating nutritious, sustainable and responsive food systems is equally important.

We need to ensure that quality food is consumed by those who need it most. This should be done in a manner that is environmentally sustainable and protects the capacity of future generations to feed themselves, without relying on government or charitable hand-outs.

Investment in nutrition will contribute immensely to sustaining healthy life-cycles among our people. In the same vein, improvements in nutrition are linked to many sustainable development outcomes, as these could lead to quality education, employment and a healthy society.

It is on this basis that efforts should be made to give every Namibian child an equal start in life by ensuring access to quality nutrition for all. This should be the mantra of the Ministries of Poverty Eradication and Social Welfare, and Health, and indeed all organs of the Namibian state.

If we fail to give our children an equal and healthy start in life, then we are no better than our erstwhile colonisers, whose focus was on improving the welfare of a few at the expense of the majority.

Now that FAO has revealed the tragic extent of malnutrition in our society, it is hoped that nutrition will, from now on, take its rightful place in government policies, programmes and priorities.

We owe our children and the future generations a firm commitment and resolute action to transform the methods of sustaining a healthy nation.

* Dr Charles Mubita holds a PhD in International Relations from the University of Southern California.

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