With impending doom at your doorstep, drastic measures are required. So in response to our fear of the food security situation here in southern Niger, this week marked the official execution of the social experiment ‘Brown Bread Revolution 2011’ .
Malnutrition is rarely caused by a simple lack of food, there are usually many political, social and economic factors at play as well. This is true in Niger. It is a region plagued by many problems including drought and poor harvests, but it is also a region where people typically prefer to eat millet porridge three times a day. Children, if lucky enough to be breastfed at all, are usually weaned at 2 or 3 months of age and it is at this point they too start on a purely millet based diet. Wheat does grow here. While not typically eaten in the villages, in the town where I am it is milled, separated, and the white flour is used to make bread. When I found the remaining components of the wheat - the bran and the germ, in the market it was quickly explained to me that they ‘are only for the beasts’. To the shock and horror of all of our local staff, I bought the beasts’ food to make bread. And the idea of the brown bread revolution began...
The wheat bran and germ are ridiculously cheap, as they are only for beasts (and Canadians). It seems inherently ridiculous that I need to mix together all of the separate parts of whole wheat flour in order to recreate it, however; there are many inherently ridiculous things in this world. Since the great bran discovery, our kitchen has been turning out delicious sourdough whole wheat bread.
So, in a time when famine is at our doorstep, it only seems correct to introduce whole wheat bread, and improved nutrition, to this population. Over the past few weeks, every time I make bread I give some loaves to our local staff, who in return provide great reviews – and horrified looks when I share the secret ingredient. Today the experiment expanded and took form. There is a traditional bakery here, which is just one large clay oven. Today, after much explaining to our driver, we delivered two uncooked loaves to the bakery. Feigning that our oven was broken, we asked that they cook the two loaves – and as payment they could keep one. No mention was made of the secret ingredient.
Upon my return to the bakery to retrieve the loaf of cooked bread, their loaf had already been almost completely consumed. The baker eagerly asked that I teach him to make this special brown bread. He and I made a date for next weekend, with the agreement that once he learns how to make the bread we will buy a loaf from him on a daily basis. Word passed remarkably fast through this small town, and several of our drivers asked if they, or their wives, could also ‘register’ for next weekend’s training. It is possible that the bread training will have the largest attendance of any activity I do in my time here.
There are many short term, large scale interventions, like the distribution of seeds and food, which are required to reduce the impact of the atrocious food security situation here this year. But if ‘beast bread’ can at least provide some added nutrients (and improved bowel regularity) to a population at a time like this, it will be a worthwhile, long lasting, small scale intervention.