BRAMPTON, Ontario — The practice of ingesting earth-like substances such as clay is known as geophagy. In some cases, geophagy is part of cultural and traditional practices in Haiti, Africa and Asia.
In other cases, geophagy is a desperate alternative in the face of extreme poverty.
In the rural village of Makeni, Sierra Leone, many pregnant women eat up to 15 clay balls a day believing the earthy matter will reduce nausea and provide nutrients for the baby. Some researchers speculate that while in the body, the clay picks up toxins by layering the gastrointestinal tract.
However, the clay may harbor parasites and can also induce lead poisoning, nerve damage and colon rupture. The clay can also inhibit nutrients from passing on to the baby, resulting in birth defects.
In Cite-Soleil, Haiti, impoverished households prepare mud pies for their meals since food inflation prevents many Haitians from affording even rice. The clay and mud dispel hunger burns because the earthy substance fills the stomach. Some people note that the mud actually provokes stomach pains.
The dietary habit is not limited to earth-like products. Pica refers to the eating disorder where people have cravings for non-food items in general such as chicken feces and uncooked rice.
Studies in Madagascar suggest those who follow the practice believe the non-foods offer healing powers.
Conversely, while those in poverty turn to clay cakes and mud pies as a last resort to stave off starvation, the diet industry has taken advantage of this phenomenon. The industry touts clay as a natural detox and as an excellent option to help weight loss.
The industry has affectionately dubbed this dieting practice as “clay cleansing,” despite the Food Standard Agency cautioning the potential consequences associated with ingesting clay products.
Supermodel Elle MacPherson is a strong advocate of clay cleansing. Businesses are reeling in billion dollars in profits while people in Sierra Leone, Haiti, and many other impoverished regions around the world are falling into starvation.
This crude romanticization of clay eating by developed countries undermine the efforts of activists and doctors trying to educate pregnant and impoverished women about the hazards of clay eating.
It is already a difficult endeavor to get people in both industrialized and developing countries to listen, understand and help, especially since geophagy is such an obscure issue compared to HIV/AIDS and water sanitation.
The idea of clay eating garners much stigma in mainstream western society, despite the rare celebrity influences such as MacPherson.
The phenomenon is often scorned and promptly dismissed. People are not interested in understanding why others would choose to ingest clay because it demands the target audience to care.
Instead, it is easier to write off an age-old cultural practice as “wrong” even though this judgment implies a cultural hierarchy.
However, the solution is not as easy as telling people to stop, and neither is periodically sending in relief aid and food a solution.
Clay miners earn a living by extracting and selling clay balls in their villages. In Sierra Leone, activists are teaching these miners agriculture as an alternative. In Haiti on the other hand, farming is not an option since the burning of forests resulted in soil degradation.
Efforts must be directed toward infrastructure reform in order to create sustainable long-term solutions to help people support themselves.
Female empowerment is also crucial.
Women in Sierra Leone suffer from a high illiteracy rate and are oppressed by expectations to follow traditions without having an education. Female empowerment will improve reproductive, maternal and child health because women will better be able to make decisions for themselves and their children.
– Carmen Tu