Mayotte mange mal


A rather interesting article turned up in the newspaper this week. Mayotte has been in the middle of a nutritional transition (poetically put) for quite a few years now. From not having enough to eat and suffering from various lacks and deficiencies, the Mahorese people now tend towards something called metabolic pathologies, said the article.

In Mayotte, food is generally associated with conviviality and hospitality. There's none of the eat-on-the-go style of doing things: a Mahorese person would never eat on his or her own, but always with associates, family or friends. Doesn't always help.


The traditional dishes are nutritionally rich, things like fish-head soup, cooked green bananas with fish or crushed cassava leaves with coconut milk and zebu meat. The Mahorese version of eating on the go is a bowl of rice and a few chicken wings. Unfortunately, or at least differently, new products have been arriving in Mayotte over the last five to ten years. Now, you can eat your fish-head soup with bread and a can of fizzy pop (with more sugar than you would find in Europe, and 40 extra calories per can... poor countries + more sugar = sugar addiction = more sales...), which you couldn't do before. People consume food in overly large quantities, and the ways of cooking have also changed. Cooking with charcoal has been replaced by cooking with gas. Cooking breadfruit over a fire - putting it in the ashes of the fire for a couple of hours until it was cooked through and black all over - has been replaced by slicing it and frying it the way you would fry chips, in a few litres of oil.




As far as exercise goes, sedentarity has increased along with the number of roads and the number of cars. Instead of walking, people drive, hitchhike or take a taxi. Much easier. Also, you no longer have to go to the fields to fetch home-grown stuff to eat: you can go to the supermarket. Fishermen who used to row their boats out on the lagoon now have canoes with small on-board engines.

The doctors say that in Mayotte, people are used to sharp, painful illnesses such as chikungunya or malaria. Chronic illnesses such as diabetes are new here, and people aren't doing that well with them. Because of diabetes, one person per week in Mayotte would need an amputation. The local diabetes association is doing its best to up people's awareness of the illness, stressing that working together makes everything much easier. For example, the women usually do the cooking, but the men tend to do the shopping... so everyone needs to be taught about healthy eating and food prep. The association has distinguished three types of family profiles in the Mahorese population:

  1. Families who eat mostly local produce and don't have the money for the imported stuff.
  2. Families whose children eat cereal for breakfast and bring chips and sodas to school. They then have a snack at school and eat rice and chicken wings for lunch. In the evening, they'll eat rice and chicken wings again. At this rate, says the association, we'll have to open a child obesity centre in ten years' time.
  3. Rich families who can afford fruit and vegetables, even imported, and who eat a larger palette of food products.


chicken wings


Most secondary schools have canteens where the kids can eat more or less properly at lunch-time, even if this eating-properly business is conditioned by the products you can actually get here. Products are often discontinued for reasons such as too much rain, not enough electricity or strikes. Production of milk or eggs can stop for six months at a time. There are also supply problems for fruit and vegetables: carrots, potatoes or lettuce can be hard to come by. Finally, products which aren't made in Mayotte have to be imported... cue boats and containers... cue strikes at the port... cue products that never actually make it as far as the shops, never mind the school canteens. There's an agricultural secondary school in the centre of the island, not terribly popular among the middle-school students but very interesting in terms of what the kids actually learn there. I visited it a couple of years ago, when they showed me how they transform livestock and raw vegetables into something more interesting. This school has been working on getting its students to eat healthily, including training the cooks and varying the image of what nutrition includes. For example, a meal without rice is completely inconceivable for the pupils. The first time they served a meal with no rice, the kids whistled at the cooks when they arrived in the canteen, furious that the school had removed this staple from their diet: imagine if a European school suddenly introduced rice at every meal. They're also trying to serve both rice and vegetables instead of just rice. The good thing is that there's no food wastage: any leftovers are taken home to the family for the evening meal.

My school serves sandwiches to the kids as a midday snack / meal. Half a floury and tasteless baguette with something unrecognizable inside, often some type of meat or patty, and some vegetable matter, which the kids instantly remove or spit out. The other day, the sandwich had carrots in it. By the end of break-time, the playground was orange.




For the ladies, who are generally much, much heavier than the men, pregnancy doesn't help. Being in a Muslim country, the cadi (high Muslim authority, equivalent of a high priest) says that when you have a baby, you must then lie down and do nothing but eat for 41 days in order to fill the gap left by the baby. You have little to no choice about what to eat during that time, as the family does it all for you, you just have to consume the very calorie-rich food they prepare. Multiply this by seven to ten children in an average lifetime, and your typical 42-kilogram girl (average weight registered at pregnancies numbers one and two) turns into a 160-kilogram middle-aged lady.

Being geographically closer to Africa than France doesn't help either, as a well-fleshed-out woman is considered much more beautiful than a skinny one. Also, as soon as girls are married and/or have their first child, they stop all physical and professional activity.




The figures:

  • 25% of the Mahorese population doesn't have access to drinking water.
  • 46% of men and only 19% of women have what's recognized as a normal body shape and weight.
  • 1 women out of 2 between the ages of 30 and 60 is overweight.
  • 19% of men are obese, 1.4% morbidly obese.
  • 2.4% of men and 1.4% of women are recognized as significantly underweight and malnourished.
  • 26% of children are malnourished.
  • In 2004, an epidemic of beriberi (nerve disease caused by a lack of vitamin B1, the consequences of which are cardiac and respiratory problems) killed 20 babies between the ages of 1 month and 4 months.
  • Diabetes is common, especially after pregnancy, and 1 person out of 10 is insulinoresistant. That's twice as many as in mainland France. 250 people are treated every year.
  • In 2011, half of the Mahorese population was living with less than 384 euros per month. 84% of the population is still living under the national level defining a low salary.
  • 38% of all money spent on food is used to buy rice, chicken and beef, the basics of the Mahorese diet.
  • In 2013, 2 417 tonnes of sugar were imported to Mayotte: more than one kilogram per month per inhabitant.
  • Over the last eight years, the number of product references available to the population has gone from 7 000 to 12 000 products.


In September 2015, two fast-food chains, Quick and McDonald's, will open in Mamoudzou. Now that's going to help matters.