Healthy life: Let’s learn from Veddahs
What Dr. Waruna Gunathilake, the consultant physician of District Hospital Bibile, revealed of the health status of the Veddah community or more accurately, the Wanniya-laeto, the oldest inhabitants of the Sri Lanka, is not only groundbreaking, but should also kindle the medical fraternity into having a scholarly discussion on the subject. While this throws light on many aspects that needs consideration in the context of health and life style, it has become more pertinent in the era of "life-style diseases"that we are passing through today.
At the same time, Dr. Gunathilake deserves a special compliment for his praiseworthy effort and enthusiasm, for all the pains borne traveling an extra mile conducting this field study, which in fact was outside his routine chores of duties as an in-house physician.
Dr. Gunathilake’s study has revealed that many so-called life-style diseases, such as, diabetes, hypertension and hyper-cholesterolaemia, are almost non-existent in the Rathugala Vedda community. At the same time the lung function tests carried out among them have shown very remarkable results. All these point to some positive indicators as to the health of this indigenous populace of our country.
On the other hand, Dr. Gunathilake has shown that some nutritional deficiencies, such as, anaemia, congenital abnormalities and some skin conditions, such as scabies, to be high among his study participants. However, one area that is worth a re-visit and even fresh intellectual ponder would be the findings of the (relatively) low body weights and low haemoglobin among the Veddah community.
As Dr. Gunathilake points out, "the average Body Mass Index (BMI) of a Veddah (male) was around 19."
Body Mass Index (BMI) is a formula which is used to evaluate whether an individual is underweight, normal weight, overweight, obese, or morbidly obese. This is calculated by weight in kg divided by height in meters squared. According to the WHO definition, while a BMI of 18.5 – 23 is considered normal (or ideal) weight (for the Asians), 23 – 27.5 is regarded overweight and over 27.5 obese. BMI less than 18.5 is taken as underweight.
With an average around 19, although the BMI of a Veddah tends to lie towards the low side, is yet within the normal range. However, he would appear lean. But the important fact remains that this had made him fit, robust and healthy while keeping him free of the modern day dreads, such as, hypertension, diabetes and high-cholesterol. His wiry body, while rendering him healthy has also kept him active, which his lifestyle demands of him for his survival. Thus, if we were to take a leaf from the Veddah’s book with regard to a life free of so-called ‘lifestyle diseases’, then there would at least be three areas, namely, the Veddah’s food habits, lifestyle and level of activity, that would be worth a scrupulous inquiry, in order to for us to understand a ‘healthy life’. On the other hand, possibility of a genetic predisposition of this community against these lifestyle diseases could not be ruled out unless the facts are meticulously examined.
Commenting on the Veddah diet Dr. Gunathilake said, "Many changes may have taken place in their diet over the years. But I’m quite sure still many elements of his traditional food habits remain".
As Dr. Gunathilake too points out, the life of the Veddahs needs no ‘romanticization’ in the present day of ‘globalization’. Not only his food habits, but also his life style as well as his ‘requirements’ may have changed with all sorts of ‘enticements’, driven both by the ‘market’ as well as the ‘authorities’, coming his way. While he may have succumbed to some, he may have resisted the others. In fact this surfaced when his plight, coming to terms with the "majority discourse" trounced the ‘inducements’ of colony life. We may recall that in the early ‘90s, just a few years after settling in the Mahaweli C zone, majority of the Veddah settlers decided to leave behind the colony life and to return to their traditional lands, bringing along with them many disgruntled memories of their forced ‘dislocation’. On the other hand, this further proved the futility of the grandiose intervention programmes aimed at them, which neither comprehends the distinctiveness of their lifestyle nor demonstrates the decency of consulting them priorly.
According to the study, there were some obvious ‘nutritional problems’ among the Veddah community. Anaemia (probably due to iron deficiency) was notable.
Dr. Gunathilake states, "the average haemoglobin level was around 10. But there were some extreme cases as low as 5 or 6".
Surely, this could be a finding that could raise many an eyebrow among the medical experts and even a yell for immediate intervention. However, here, first it would be prudent to look at the probable reasons for this catastrophe (if it is one) and possible means of getting over it through ‘indigenous’ ways. This should take precedence over any external interventions, which have always proved to be disastrous as past experiences around the world have already shown us.
Any intervention involving indigenous people, whether it be nutritional or life-style (or something else), should always be looked at with some scepticism. The very reasons for this rest upon many unsavoury experiences of the past, about which the interventionists and researchers need to be mindful at all times. While heaps of literature on such appalling experiences are readily available, I would mention a few here, namely the experiences of the Bedouin communities in the Negev desert, Pima Indians of southern Arizona and among the indigenous Nauru inhabitants. Research have shown that diabetes among the Bedouins had shot up from 0..5% to over 10% in 40 years, among the Pima Indians from a near non-existent level to over 50% in 70 years and among Nauru inhabitants to 44% from 0% within a span of 45 years. The main reasons for this rapid and alarming rise in diabetes among all these indigenous communities, as deduced by the researchers, were the changes that occurred in their life style (transforming from an initial hunter-gathering one to a rural, semi-urban or urban lifestyle), ‘westernization’ of the societies and changes in their food habits.
As Dr. Riccardo Baschetti, one of the researchers pointed out, "(these) populations that kept to traditional dietary habits were virtually free from diabetes. Then, after they began eating some foods that are common in Europe, the disease reached epidemic proportions."
Analyzing the Pima diet pre and post diabetic epidemic, he further showed that "before the diabetes epidemic the traditional Pima diet provided 8 – 12 % fat and 70 – 80 % (unrefined) carbohydrate. Dietary fat then reached 50% with the shift to Western diet", (Journal of Royal Society of Medicine, Volume 91, December 1998).
Still honey holds an important place in the Veddah diet. The honey gathered from the backyard forest is part and parcel of traditional Veddah culinary. Protective action of honey against diabetes and even high blood lipids, has been well documented and is a probable factor among the Veddah community as well. The researchers postulate that Europeans had achieved some genetically determined protective adaptation against diabetes because of the consumption of large quantities of honey by their ancestors, (British Journal of Nutrition, 1996, Vol. 75).
Commenting on the problems with food faced by the Veddah community today, Sujeewa Jasinghe of the Center for Eco-cultural Studies, says that restrictions on hunting and chena cultivation severely hamper the Veddah’s access to his traditional food, thus adversely affecting his nutrition.
"This has forced them to turn towards the ‘market’ for part of their food needs", laments Jasinghe, who has many years of experience working with the Veddah community, with obvious distaste in his tone.
Meat from ‘game’ and pulses, such as, ‘kurahan’, ‘mun’, ‘meneri’ grown in chenas were some of the key components of traditional veddah diet. However, restrictions imposed on both ‘game’ and ‘chena cultivation’ have severely hampered availability as well as accessibility to foods by the Veddahs.
"As their surrounding jungle is ‘protected’ they are prevented from hunting for their food needs. They cannot indulge in ‘chena cultivation’ either", lamented Jasinghe.
However, this continues despite the repeated pleas by the Veddah community for greater access to occupy and manage their ancestral habitat. As the Veddahs usually claim, being the ancestral custodians of the jungle they will protect it more efficiently than the salaried officials, as they live in and are part of it. They have repeatedly argued that revocation of their hunting rights is illegal and unjust. In fact, they claim that they have been doing this for thousands of years but without any impediment to the biodiversity of the jungle. They would hunt the animals that are in abundance and that too for their food requirements.
Today the Veddahs have confined themselves to growing only a few of their traditional crops in the little land available to them in their immediate home environment. Maize has become one of their popular crops. Commenting on this Jasinghe states, "But that again is the imported Malaysian variety and not the traditional variety, which is tastier and nutritious".
An International Labour Organization (ILO) sponsored study in 1992 too acknowledged the quandary faced by the Veddah community, especially in the wake of the development paradigm of the time. The study has identified that on top of their economic backwardness and social isolation, the Veddahs are exploited by other (settler) communities. Their repeated failures in adapting to paddy cultivation, compounded by restrictions on hunting and food gathering, have worsened their situation, which we now see also as nutritional deficiency states as well.
This, Jasinghe aptly articulates when he says, "What we need to do today for the Veddahs is nothing new, but to let them reclaim what they have lost or taken away from them over time".
Restrictions imposed on hunting and chena cultivation by the Veddahs, need to be looked at with fresh thought and an open mind especially in the light of anaemia and other nutritional deficiencies they are silently suffering from. The relentless assault on the Veddahs that had been taking place for over half a century with colonization of their historical habitats, seems not to have been confined to their livelihood, but also spread to their food (and nutritional) access routes.
Undoubtedly, further limiting their access to their avenues of food will amount to a blatant violation of their human rights as well as their chances for good health, which they are quite capable of achieving themselves without external influence. Thus, making amends to these unsavoury situations alone will ensure reinforcing good health for them.