Why Are Many Gambians Dying Young? Sounding the Alarm to Those Living Abroad

05/27/2014 16:13

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Why are Many Gambians Dying Young?
Sounding the Alarm to Those Living Abroad

By Bakary M. Jallow, My Basse Associate Editor

Is it what we consume or is it lack of preventive care?

Gambians dying young has become pervasive and felt everywhere regardless of where we live. A significant number of Gambians living abroad die due to acute illnesses, firearms or motor vehicle accidents.  Many of the stories of Gambian natural deaths abroad are narrated as deaths after brief illnesses. We can do something about preventable, premature deaths that are crippling our beloved nation.

It is reasonable to believe that some of the deaths of young Gambians living abroad are preventable. Like I stated in previous articles, we have to take charge and be responsible for our own health if we want to live longer. The notion that we should come to the West and struggle hard, be in misery and wait until we go back home to enjoy the fruits of our hard work, is something puzzling to me to say the least. Not taking good care of one’s healthcare needs is pretty much succumbing oneself to illness and eventually death prior to making that final visit back home that  some of us frequently talk about. So, fellow Gambians in the Diaspora, it is doable to take care of one’s health and still be able to make that final return to The Gambia and live the life one desires.

What we consume, if not done selectively, will end up consuming the very life we are trying to live. Eating healthy and exercising adequately is essential if one wants to achieve longevity in life. Eating healthy is not eating white rice or bread everyday twice a day. Eating healthy is balancing the amount of our fats, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamin, minerals and water we ingest. Watch what you put in your mouth and you have a higher probability of living a long, productive life.

We, Gambians, are well known for the exorbitant quantities of white rice we consume on a daily basis. It is not uncommon to find one of us eating rice not only daily but twice a day and sometimes even thrice a day. To make matters worse, we also eat so much rice and bread in one serving. This is alarming when looking at the rate at which we are catching up with the West in terms of chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, etc.

It is going to be hard for a typical Gambian to try to avoid rice all together but it will be beneficial to our health if we try eating rice at most once a day and cutting on the serving sizes to only one or two scoops of cooked white rice. One cup of cooked white is 204 calories of which 89% are carbs(1). It will take 70kg or 155lbs -person 30 minutes to burn 149 calories when he/she walks 3.5 miles per hour (mph) and the same person will be able to burn 167 calories at a walking speed of 4mph. A 60kg or 130lbs- person will be able to shed only a little over 200 calories by running 5mph. That brings us to the question, how many Gambians exercise routinely(2). 

Some researchers have documented that eating brown rice is better than eating white rice. Brown rice’s response to insulin is lower than white rice. White rice has been implicated for been a precursor to diabetes. White rice raises the risk for Type 2 diabetes by 10% according to Harvard University researchers. The same research have shown a 27% decrease risk for diabetes for people who eat the least white rice  among white rice eaters in China, Japan, Australia and the U.S. White rice quickly turns into calories that the body does not expend or use which is converted to fat deposits.  It takes only a small amount of time for white rice to be broken down. This leads to a precipitated increase in energy levels which is followed by laziness. That probably explains why the sluggishness and the reduction in productivity at work after lunch time in The Gambia.

Brown rice could be a healthy alternative if eaten in moderation. Brown rice retains the vitamins, minerals and fiber that are stripped out of white rice.  The fiber in brown rice will minimize constipation and prevent hemorrhoids secondary to constipation. Researchers have shown that brown rice helps in protein metabolism. Brown rice also contains vitamin E which is absent in white rice.

Gambians love to fry their foods and I fear that our love for fried foods is also frying our lives away. Our penchant for fried foods is manifested during social gatherings such as “Ghentehs” weddings or other parties. We saturate and flood our “Benachins”, fish pies, meat stews with cooking oil. Why we do this is still a mystery for me because I believe our foods taste even better when it is not sipping cooking oil. This mundane practice is not heart-healthy and we should move away from it. Fried foods double the chances of having obesity. Secondly, the palm oil “Dewtirr” we eat is not as harmless as it looks and its consumption should be minimized.

Preventive health care will be our savior if we practise it well. Gambian folks in the Diaspora should learn to see their doctors for preventive care and not only for treatment. Some have medical insurance and never make the best use of it but will wait until something happens to them before they see a physician. Sometimes the damage would have already been done and the problem then becomes irreversible. Annual medical examinations are defensive mechanisms in preventing health problems. During annual physical examinations, patients are assessed for deviations from the norm such as heart, bone or neurological defects. Annual health physicals will enable one’s doctor to evaluate their good and bad cholesterols which could help prevent or delay cardiac abnormalities. One’s kidney functions are also evaluated during these visits. Health insurances plans in the U.S provide free preventive care and I urge and encourage everyone to capitalize on the benefit.

Chronic, intermittent stomach pain or headaches are not minor ailments and having such types of pain requires a doctor’s consult. Chronic pain is usually defined as pain lasting for more than six months. One should be worried even if pain span for more than three months. Brain tumors can manifest in the form of headaches or visual disturbances. Strokes can start as a minor headache. Stomach pains can be due to a host of issues such as gallbladder, pancreas, tumors, a blockage, or liver problems etc. One should be even more worried if you have sharp/excruciating stomach pain which waxes and wanes. Gambians are stoic in nature and would rather endure pain than voice it out. Verbalizing pain in Gambian cultures is seen as a sign of weakness but not verbalizing one’s feelings/pain is what should be really considered as a sign of weakness and being cowardly.

Excessive salt, sugar and bread intake is another frightening thing that is observed among Gambians. Our coffees, teas, pourage, “chakerees”, etc., are inundated with sugar before they find their way into our stomachs. This is another practice, if curtailed, will probably save lots of Gambian lives. Excess sugars we consume turn into energy that is not used, making our intake and output unbalanced which leads to obesity, diabetes, hypertension, etc. High salt intake is implicated for developing hypertension.

Let us all desist from eating late at night right before going to bed. Calorie intakes taken before going to bed end up stored in our bodies as fat if not used by the body. Because of the diurnal nature of humans, most of our activities are curtailed at night and therefore we spend less energy.
Working everyday, seven days a week, is not equivalent to regular exercise that culminates to good health. One of the goals of exercising should be to increase one’s heart rate thereby increasing the body’s metabolism.  We have to optimally balance what we consume and the amount of energy we spend to remain healthy. It is widely recommended to at least exercise three days in a week for 30-minutes. This can be in the form of walking, running or climbing stairs. Moderate exercise is heart healthy and helps to prevent chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension.

Fellow Gambians, if we want to make that final trip back home healthy and enjoy the fruits of our hard work in “Babylon” we have to take charge of our health and live a healthy lifestyle by:

• Watching what we consume

• Cutting down on our trips to fast food restaurants

• Minimizing sweetened drinks consumption such as soda

• Curtailing fried foods consumption

• Significantly cutting down on white rice consumption and reducing our white rice serving size. Switch to brown rice if you can.

• Reducing our salt, sugar and bread intake.

• Avoiding eating right before we go to bed.

• Exercising regularly at least for 30 minutes three times a week.

• Making regular visits to a primary care physician for preventive care and annual physical examination.

• Seeking medical treatment promptly and not keeping our ailments to ourselves.


1. FatSecrets (n.d): White Rice. Acessed March 14th, 2014 from: https://fatsecret.com/calories-nutrition/generic/rice-white-cooked-regular?portionid=16834&portionamount=1.000

2. Hauptman, N.K (n.d). Do You Burn More calories Walking on a Treadmill or doing aerobic dancing. Houston Chronicle. Houston, TX. Accessed March 16th, 2014 from: https://livehealthy.chron.com/burn-calories-walking-treadmill-doing-aerobic-dance-1933.html

Sifferlin, A (March 16, 2012). Does eating White Rice raise Your Risk of Diabetes? Time:Health and Family. New York, NY. Accessed march 10th, 2014 from: https://healthland.time.com/2012/03/16/study-does-eating-white-rice-raise-your-risk-of-diabetes/


Editor's Note: This article is part of a series on Gambian health matters by the same author. To read past articles, please visit the archives of this website.

About the Author: Bakary M. Jallow, a Registered Nurse, holds a Bachelor's of Science in Nursing from Angelo State University and a Master's degree in Public Health from Texas A & M University, Texas. He is currently an Infection Preventionist Clinician with the John C. Lincoln Hospitals Network in Phoenix, Arizona, USA, where he resides with his wife Mariama Korka Bah-Jallow and their young daughter.

By Request: To comment on this article, please share your thoughts on the Forum of this website or to personally write to the author, you can send your emails to: bakarymjallow@yahoo.com


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