The cultural context of vitamin A deficiency: A comparative study of two Hausa communities

Date of Completion

January 1999


Anthropology, Cultural|Health Sciences, Nutrition




This study examined factors affecting the food systems and nutritional strategies of Hausa people living in contrasting ecological zones in Niger. The first research community is in a more northern pastoral region while the second community is in a savanna zone, which is ecologically characterized by higher rainfall. The study also compared food ideologies and management of vitamin A deficiency. ^ The research was conducted over a 14-month period in 1993–94. The study design carried out in each community involved detailed qualitative research of the food systems, the household structural organization, food consumption patterns, food beliefs, and health seeking practices. Structured interviews, administered with 100 mother-respondents, included cognitive mapping procedures, food frequencies and methods to ascertain food procurement. Anthropometric data were collected among preschool children living in the households sampled. ^ The findings highlight community differences regarding dietary strategies. In the northern community, where food production continually fails to meet subsistence needs, male farmers typically migrate south to supplement their income. Food consumption patterns show sharp seasonal variations, reflecting the austere measures poor families must take. In the second community, where food production is higher and off-season economic opportunities are greater, residents take precautionary measures to ensure food security. ^ The research uncovered differences in the social structure, which influence women's roles and intrahousehold economic arrangements and in turn appear to affect childcare practices and child health. In the northern community, where most women do not engage in money-making endeavors, women are more attentive to their young children's needs. In the southern site, where women conduct trade, resulting constraints force them to interact less with children. Less than optimal caregiving practices appear to offset the better ecological conditions in the southern community and are linked to high rates of malnutrition. ^ The findings reveal differences in cultural models of vitamin A deficiency. Where the syndrome is common, women attribute nightblindness to a poor diet and use dietary solutions that provide efficacious treatment. Where the condition is rare, explanations for the affliction are linked to supernatural powers. Conclusions can be drawn regarding the way that cultural solutions to health problems are maintained or lost. ^