By Isaac Massaquoi
I wonder how many of us ask questions about the sort of meat we eat daily – that takes in our meat burgers, even at some of the best restaurants in Freetown, the roadside roast meat we casually pick up on evening stroll from one of the many selling points around Freetown these day, or the “goat soup” people eat at Moyamba Junction and Matotoka every hour.
On one of many journalism training projects last year, I asked participants at an investigative journalism session to investigate this goat soup business at the two locations mentioned above. I told them their findings will be interesting. One year has gone by and we still don’t have the story.
I’ve been given all sorts of excuses. The truth is: It takes more than a workshop exercise and a stubborn trainer who would keep asking questions, to deliver a story like that. The young folks in Sierra Leone journalism today need money and support from their employers to prove their worth. Both are in absolute short supply.
Sierra Leoneans ask very few or no questions about the quality of their food – well I mean the overwhelming majority of the people. But if you’ve been watching global news over the last two weeks, you will notice that it’s been dominated by reports of horsemeat entering the food chain in much of Europe by fraudulent means. Thereporting has been so intense that a colleague suggested that the whole thing was being “over reported”.
I told him we could have a debate lasting the whole day about the news values driving that coverage. Consider this: The story is about food consumed by millions of people across Europe and the money involved is unbelievable; it’s also about a meat that could have disastrous consequences for the wellbeing of millions because medical products used to treat horses could infect the food in a scam in which people are deceived about the type of beef they buy from their supermarkets. Which other plot do you need to tell a fantastic story; and keep it rolling?
I was in the UK in 2001 when the Foot and Mouth disease in animals became a big issue also because it affected humans. There was a massive cull of animals across England and the beef industry was badly damaged as exports were banned in countries where it mattered. The whole nation was on alert. It was as if people were being mobilised for war. The government knew the consequences of not taking appropriate steps to fight the disease and restore confidence in British beef. They did their best. At some point I thought the government and their Vets panicked too easily and ordered the cull of animals on more farms than was necessary as a pre-emptive strike.
I remember a friend jokingly saying to me that the British could have shipped all those animals off to Sierra Leone where people will gladly receive them.He suggested that our animals in Sierra Leone have suffered many attacks of foot and mouth disease but they’ve gone unnoticed and we have carried on eating. If he were from another country, I would have asked him to withdraw the comment. On deep reflection afterwards, I had no escape but to agree that the brother was saying the truth.
I don’t think there can be any argument about the fact that our food chain in this country is seriously contaminated by all the food we eat. Don’t we already have very cheap sausages, chicken, soft drinks and sardines from as far afield as Macedonia on our streets?How about all the cigarettes and alcohol flooding our markets?
The way we handle our food is a real problem. Check out our abattoirs and tell me whether all the animals slaughtered across the country are cleared by Vets; go to those isolated parts of the filthy markets of Freetown and see the conditions in which your cassava leaves is treated. These days your potato leaves and other such leaves are processed and packaged in the market after being washed with water from nearby streams flowing through communities where people have no toilets and are forced to deposit huge amounts of excreta collected in plastic bags in those same streams.
We talk a lot about keeping a healthy nation and as the argument goes, if we have well-paid health workers – doctors, nurses and support staff, lots of drugs and clean and shinning hospitals, then our health care system is fine. Even when government officials speak about health, it is in these terms that they speak. Well that’s not bad. How about preventative health? I mean stopping people from getting sick in the first place from easily preventable diseases like cholera. Last year we lost more than two hundred of the most vulnerable Sierra Leoneans to the disease – somehow they had the misfortune of taking in contaminated food or water.
Preventative school health care programs that were so popular when I was in primary school in the late 70s are no more, look at what we use to call school clinic just opposite the morgue and tell me if that doesn’t speak adequately about how much we care for the health of our children.
Such programs are doing extremely well in countries like Bangladesh. We have closed down school health programs and are now doing only UN-sponsored sporadic immunization days against mainly polio. As we’ve seen recently, even donor money for such projects is not safe anymore. The president has been compelled to send ten senior government officials home as the ACC investigates them on allegations of stealing one million US dollars, for God knows what.
Drive along Saint John round about, Kissy road near Kennedy Street, Calaba Town, near the police station and Fourah Bay road, close to Magazine Cut and see bread sold in open air and extremely filthy conditions.
Visit any cookery baffa, anywhere in Sierra Leone and see the kitchens and those who serve the food. Imagine how many low-income Sierra Leoneans get their food from these places and tell me why we expect to be a healthy nation. I tried that out at Moyamba Junction recently. It was disgusting. I urge you to get your own experience.
Recently cartoons of fish dumped because the fish was not good for human consumption, was scooped and put back on the market. Among the people who organised the deal, were members of the security forces. The rotten fish re-entered the food chain and all of us have since been having a good stew for dinner. I don’t know of anybody who’s been brought before a court for compromising the nation’s health in such brazen manner.
In Sierra Leone, we have structures like the Standards Bureau and a so-called Consumer Protection Council but their effectiveness is in huge doubt. I hear their officials on radio once in a while. That in itself is not bad, but matching what they say on radio with the real issues on the ground is the problem.
Former deputy health minister, Mohamed Daudis Koroma died fighting fake drugs and the so-called “pure water” industry. Even advanced countries are always fighting to stay on top of criminal elements looking to make money, and lots of it, even at the expense of the lives of thousands of our people every year.
Sometimes I feel we have simply surrendered to the criminals either because we are too weak to fight both in terms of the capacity of the institutions created for this fight or some of the officials are corrupt and so turn a blind eye to the game.
We can talk all day about providing health care for our people but if we fail to deal with what I call the very basics, our lives will continue to be short. This is not the best commentary you want to read on a Wednesday morning as you take breakfast but sadly, it’s my take on these important questions.
(C) Politico 20/02/13)