Avoid tainted foods by identifying source

Two things happened in Belgium in the 90s that awakened my slumbering hypochondria.

The condition had first manifested itself in my teens when, having read somewhere about the body’s daily requirements in zinc, copper, iron and other trace elements, I trotted off to the chemists at Nairobi West where I assumed I could instruct the pharmacist to concoct the necessary potions that would keep illness at bay.

The pharmacist looked at me incredulously and then laughed me out of the door. Along with teenage angst and other horrors of that age, the exaggerated preoccupation with the state of my health soon passed.

But the hypochondriac in me came fully awake again following news of the murder of a veterinary inspector who had raised the ire of criminal cartels selling synthetic growth hormones to beef farmers keen on cutting corners and reducing costs.

Then came the even more worrying news of supermarkets selling chicken fattened on feed tainted with dioxin - a carcinogenic agent - and I completely went off my meat.

When I developed a painful lump in my armpit, I became certain that cancer had struck and my days on this earth were numbered.

I’m not one of those hypochondriacs that pester their doctors at every sign of illness, real or imagined; I bore my friends to tears instead, describing the symptoms and seeking reassurance that there’s nothing to worry about.

Patricia soon got fed up of hearing about the lump in my armpit and told me to either book an appointment with the doctor or shut up. I finally went to see Dr Petersen who diagnosed an infection caused by in-grown hair.

From then on I would take no chances and turned to organic food which is produced without using most conventional pesticides, synthetic fertilisers, sewage sludge or bioengineering.

So you can imagine my reaction when I read in the Kenyan press that much of the sukuma wiki on sale in Nairobi is bacteria-ridden and full of heavy metals.

I come home practically every year and stay anything between six weeks and two months, enjoying the welcome relief from my usual staple of cabbage, broccoli and spinach.

I gorge on vast quantities of kale, amaranth and other traditional vegetables, naively assuming these foods to have been produced on smallholdings far outside Nairobi city limits by peasant farmers much reliant on farm manure, adequate rains and a bit of sunshine for a good crop.

I couldn’t have been more wrong as it turns out and, having pushed my paranoia to the point of eating only organic farmed salmon for fear of ingesting mercury along with my tuna salad, I’m now back to worrying about the heavy metals possibly swimming around in my bloodstream alongside the legitimate zinc and iron.

Tests undertaken

But I’m even more flabbergasted to discover that tests undertaken in 2006 on samples collected from outlets around Nairobi by the Kenya Organic Agriculture Network showed levels of pesticide residues between 300 and 1000 per cent above those tolerated for Kenya’s exports of fruit and vegetables to the European Union.

The results of subsequent tests undertaken by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (KEPHIS) in 2008 were not released to the public and so, like everyone else, I’ve been eating tainted veggies every time I’ve visited Nairobi.

Becoming a permanent food exile is not an option, however, and I have been researching sources of organic produce ahead of my next visit.

I have discovered that, ironically, even as much of the Nairobi middle-class has been eating tainted kales, residents of a corner of the Kibera slums have been consuming organic vegetables produced by the Kibera Youth Reform Organic Farm.

Still, there’s always the Organic Shop at Gigiri where I can buy a small box of organic greens for the eye-watering sum of KSh 8,500. Or perhaps I could persuade Mother to plant an organic vegetable garden in her backyard