Biafra was a part of Eastern Nigeria which secceded from Nigeria and declared itself as as independent country in 1967. The world refused to recognize the new state and supported the Nigerian government’s efforts to quell the rebellion. I don’t remember the politics of it, as it was played out at that time. However, in the time it took them to get the rebels to surrender, more than a million people, mostly women and children died of starvation. Many more died in the fighting itself. I was a medical student then, and I remember vividly the horrendous pictures of the starving children that appeared in the national dailies and magazines. This was kwashiorkar, not a disease, but a condition caused by extreme protein deprivation.
That was also the period I was undergoing my undergraduate clinical training, and the pediatric wards were full of malnourished children, maybe not quiet kwashiorkar, but close to it!! Memories of those times and those experiences flashed back through my mind due to a series of recent encounters.
The first was the beautiful book that I read recently, set in Nigeria of the late 60’s.The story revolves around the creation and demise of Biafra, through the lives of a University Professor, his wife, her twin sister and her English lover and their devoted young man servant. The events of the time, the conflict and the day to day reality of living through the hunger is wonderfully brought out.
And finally, my daughter recommended a book which I am reading. The author, Annie Zaidi, deals with her experiences of reporting on the malnourished children closer to home, Madhya Pradesh. Hunger is a reality all around us and the politics of hunger are complex. Governments live in denial, the public looks the other way. India has the worst record in the world in its ability to feed its hungry children with almost half of them being undernourished and I am certain, hidden in the remote districts of Orissa, Jharkand, MP etc many with kwashiorkar.
So, to come back to the point, kwashiorkar is not a disease, but a condition that results from the persistent and continuous deprivation of protein in the diet during the period of rapid growth. Most of us have not really felt what it is to be really hungry (me included) When we try and forget about the possibility of hunger, it is no surprise at all that the world has forgotten Biafra!!!