Ghana, like most African countries, is a European invention.
journal (part two)
foul and distasteful killer
In September, when we last heard from adventuring
educator and three-time Guinness World Record holder Dan Buettner,
he had just provided us with an eight-part crash course on the ins
and outs of the Galápagos
Islands. Since then, his research on aging has appeared as a
cover story in National Geographic and his work continues in Africa
this year under the name of Blue
Zones. Here's his latest report:
malaria may kill more kids in Ghana than anything else, the second
biggest killer is so foul and distasteful that people don't even
want to talk about it.
Our team has traveled 200 miles north of Accra to the country's
second largest city, Kumasi. Kumasi is the capital of the Ashanti
region. Accra was once dominated by the Ga people. Modern-day Ghana,
like most countries in Africa, is a European invention. Historically,
Africa was divided by tribes that lived within shifting borders.
Today, the tribes still persist (there are over 1,000 different
languages spoken here and five main ethnic groups); their land has
been carved up just in the last century by colonies from England,
France and Portugal.
The ride to Kumasi was harrowing. Having set a Guinness World Record
for biking across Africa, I'm no stranger to the conditions here.
But things seemed harsher today. Tin-roofed slums lined the road
as we crept out of Accra in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Huge tufts
of grey diesel exhaust blew out of tailpipes, clouding the already
dirty air. At each stop, dozens of people would come to our car
selling everything from plantains to phone cards and bubble gum
to couches. I normally ignore vendors, but a cute little kid wearing
a buzz cut, blue shorts and a mango-colored shirt stood out. He
was selling clear plastic bags of chilled water from a huge basin
balanced on his head.
"Why aren't you in school?" I asked.
"I've already been to school, sir," he replied politely.
I looked at my watch. It was 3 p.m. Indeed, over 80 percent of Ghanaian
kids go to school.
water can be deadly for African kids.
"What's your name?" I asked.
"Kofi, sir. It means I was born on a Friday."
I asked him where he got the water.
"From the tap in my village. I cooled them down in my auntie's
The water looked cool and clear, but I knew it could be deadly
maybe not to me, but to lots of kids like Kofi.
Untreated water often causes diarrhea and here that kills
kids. In Ghana, it causes the death of tens of thousands of children
each year, more than anything besides malaria. More often than not,
you get it from drinking water or eating foods contaminated with
other people's poop.
A variety of microbes cause diarrhea: A virus (which causes 70
percent of the cases); cholera and typhoid fever (caused by a bacteria);
dysentery (caused by amoebas); and giardia (caused by a parasite).
Most of the time, the diarrhea itself doesn't kill kids. At first,
it's just an annoyance to have to run to the bathroom so often.
But over days and weeks, as a child loses fluid from loose stools,
he becomes dehydrated. His eyes sink into his head, his skin loses
flexibility and he loses weight.
The end often comes from heart or kidney failure. Diarrhea is a
foul sickness not only because of the mess it makes, but mostly
because it is so easily treated. If a child is given regular drinks
of a solution made from a half teaspoon of salt and six teaspoons
of sugar mixed in a liter of water, he could be saved.
The diseases themselves could be reduced with better sanitation.
Somehow here, sewage mingles too easily with drinking water (like
in those bags on Kofi's head). Kids don't make it a habit to wash
their hands with soap, and flies which breed on disease-laden
feces and then fly on food are all too abundant. In America,
we've adopted sanitation practices that eliminated all of these
diseases but, as little as a hundred years ago, more people died
from the diseases that cause diarrhea than they did from cancer.
Each year, universities and pharmaceutical companies spend billions
of dollars in search of curing diseases. But sometimes the most powerful
cures are in everyone's reach. The world's oldest, healthiest people
get that way by doing these simple things: They eat mostly plants;
they move their body daily; they spend time with friends and family;
The secret to longevity isn't complex or expensive. And here in
Africa, there's a simple but powerful solution for saving millions
of lives; it contains sugar, salt and water, and perhaps just a
little more education.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go wash my hands.