Clay As Delicacy And Danger

Sikiratou Ahouansou, IPS, September 26, 2006

Dakar—You can find them at the rear of the large shed in the market at the train station, amidst dust, shouts of laughter and the “thwack” of sacks being thrown onto pushcarts. These are some of the kaolin sellers that frequent the Senegalese capital, Dakar.

A good many people may be unfamiliar with kaolin—a type of fine, crumbly clay typically used to make ceramics such as porcelain. Still fewer may be aware that kaolin is not only used for manufacturing purposes, but is also eaten in Senegal and other parts of West Africa.

Trade in the substance is dominated by vendors from neighbouring Mali, where it is mined in several regions. A sack of kaolin, weighing in at a hefty 90 to 95 kilogrammes, sells for about 14 dollars. (Over 70 percent of Mali’s population lives on less than a dollar a day, according to the 2005 Human Development Report, produced by the United Nations Development Programme; the figure for Senegal is about 26 percent.)

Moussa Sow, one of the Malian vendors, has plied his trade at Dakar’s station for more than 15 years. Crouched in front of sacks of kaolin, he cuts chunks of the clay into pieces with the help of some scrap metal. These pieces are then arranged in heaps on an old burlap sack.

Each of his clients follows the same ritual—selecting a piece of kaolin, feeling and tapping it, then breaking off a bit to nibble. A discussion about quality and price follows, at which point they buy a pile of kaolin from Sow for about a dollar.

Binta Diallo, a retail kaolin seller at the Castors market in Dakar, replenishes her stock from Sow every fortnight—breaking the kaolin into still smaller pieces before reselling it. Not all kaolin is created equal, it seems. “My clients prefer the white. It is less hard, and quickly digested,” she told IPS, explaining the difference between grey and white clay.

Diallo previously sold peanuts. But, real food just couldn’t compete with clay in the delicacy stakes. “In hot periods, as is the case now, I sell it quickly,” she adds, packing some kaolin into a bag.

While hot weather might lead to brisk sales, it is rainy weather than really works to the advantage of kaolin traders.

“Prices soar, as when it rains…our suppliers are not easily able to access the sites (where kaolin is mined). In this case, the price of a sack reaches 10,000 CFA francs,” Sow told IPS. (At current rates, 10,000 CFA francs translates into about 20 dollars.)

Amongst those most likely to feel the pinch of higher of higher prices: pregnant women. In West Africa, kaolin is something that expectant mothers often crave and eat, even though it poses particular dangers for them. The practice of consuming clay and earth is termed “geophagia”.

“Kaolin has a smell of sand, and I like this while I am pregnant. It’s this that attracts me the most. When I don’t eat it, I am very ill at ease; I shake and experience vertigo,” said Rokhaya Sène.

Notes Marie-Jeanne Tening Diouf, who has given birth to 10 children, “When I wanted some, nothing could keep me from it. I had to have it, no matter what the cost.”

Diouf ate white kaolin during most of her pregnancies. She only called a halt after it caused her to develop health problems, including anaemia—which refers to a shortage of red blood cells. Kaolin prevents absorption of certain nutrients, including the iron which is critical for production of these cells.

For some, anaemia may simply be an irritant, perhaps causing feelings of tiredness or shortness of breath. In the case of pregnant women, however, it poses a serious threat: anaemia-related complications include premature delivery and low birth weights, while the condition may also aggravate the effects of blood loss during labour, and even result in foetal and maternal death.

As gynaecologist Claudine Doumbia* observes, “When the mother is anaemic, the baby has a delay in growth that can lead to abortion, a death in vitro, because it is not sufficiently nourished.”

This is something Sène learned at great cost, having lost her first child because of kaolin consumption. “It was later, much later, that I knew it was because I ate too much kaolin that my child did not survive. I continue to consume it, but not like before,” she told IPS.

At the Principal Hospital in Dakar, matters are not helped by the fact that women who suffer from anaemia generally come from areas where malnutrition is already a problem.

“These women have babies which do not even weigh two kilogrammes at birth, anaemic children who are susceptible to infections. They bleed a lot, and have blood clotting problems at the time of childbirth. Sometimes, they lose their lives,” says Franck Kpékpédé, a gynaecologist at Principal.

In addition, eating contaminated kaolin may allow various intestinal worms to take up residence in the body. These bring with them their own health hazards.

Efforts are underway to have pregnant women resist the hormonally-driven impulse to eat kaolin, not always with success. “We sensitise them and ask them to abandon kaolin. There are some who understand, others not,” says Doumbia.

While the taste for kaolin may appear odd, it is not unique to West Africa. Various reports indicate that the clay is also eaten in the American south, mostly by black women. It has been speculated that the habit of clay consumption migrated to the United States as a result of the slave trade.

Given the effects of kaolin on iron absorption, it is perhaps ironic that a link has been suggested between geophagia and nutrient deficiency: that people may eat dirt to obtain various minerals.

The practice is also associated with culture and tradition, amongst others, with many of the present group of kaolin eaters having doubtless watched their mothers eat the clay—and these women, the generation before that.

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