28 October 2013

Maasai boys struggle with malnutrition

Uwiro, Tanzania - A drought in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in northwest Tanzania claimed the lives of more than 200 children in 2011. The dry season and unsure rains mean that the Maasai children that live in the region are still at risk.

It may be the boys who are at the greatest risk.

Girls fall behind at an early age compared to their male peers around the world. The semi-nomadic Maasai tribe of Kenya and Tanzania are known for their male warriors, the morani. The masculine culture would lead one to conclude that the problems start with the girls, but it is the Maasai boys who are in trouble.

Boys traditionally take care of the cattle during the day, leaving them with little to eat for a day that requires a lot of walking and work. An analysis of the body mass index (BMI) of school-age boys and girls (between seven and nineteen years old) in the region shows a stark divide. Malnutrition is striking at a point of vital development for all children.

"We held a community meeting and people had no idea," said Silvia Ceppi, scientific adviser for the Italian NGO Oikos.

DSC_0095The hidden problem is in part due to the cultural structure of the Maasai. The girls are the ones who bring in money for a family when they are married. That means that they hold higher immediate value than their brothers for a family. Ceppi hypothesizes that this may contribute to a greater early investment in girls than in the boys.

It could also be a function of gender roles in the community. While the boys are out all day tending to the cattle in the fields, the girls are doing the work at home which includes cooking.

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