A small headline in the news: Guinea pig touted as solution to Congo food crisis.

…it’s not known how or when guinea pigs — native to South America — arrived in Congo, but CIAT (the Colombia-based agricultural research institute, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture) researchers discovered them last year being kept as “micro-livestock” in the nation’s hard-hit North and South Kivu provinces, which border Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.

“Small and easy to conceal, guinea pigs are well-suited to (Congo’s) conflict zones, where extreme poverty and widespread lawlessness means that the looting of larger domestic livestock is commonplace,” the group said in a statement.

Very interesting….but let me give you a bit of a background about the story.For those of you who read the US newspapers, you probably don’t know that the wars in Central Africa have killed over 4 million people, and have been associated with some of the worst human atrocities that one can imagine.

It says a lot for the news business that if you know about this problem, it’s probably from Hollywood (“24 Redemption”, “Blood Diamonds”, “Tears of the Sun”). And alas it’s not just wars, but anarchy, disease, and even a volcanic eruption. Think of the Dark Ages of Europe or China, where barbarians and warring war lords spread chaos among the locals.

The West is pretty well ignoring the wars for fear of being called racist, and although China is there willing and able to help rebuild for a slice of the profits, only NGO’s and the UN peacekeepers stand between utter chaos and worse.

I was aware of the food crisis. Indeed, the “animal rights” people have been lamenting about it for awhile, since it seems that one source of food is monkey meat, and eating monkeys into extinction upsets them a lot more than dead black babies.

Finding cheap protein to feed growing children is an ongoing problem, and not only in war zones.

When we worked in Africa, we had a nutrition center to “feed up” children who were losing weight. Usually the kids did well until they were weaned, but then the local diet didn’t provide enough protein. The result was Kwashiorkor, protein malnutrition. Kids would come in bloated, lethargic and with red hair. If the case was severe, they died even after feeding. So we had our village health workers screen local children for malnutrition, and then helped with cheap protein supplements for the diet. In severe cases, we admitted them to be”fed up” in our Nutrition village, where we trained our mothers to add peanut butter to porridge, to raise chickens in cages for their eggs (free range chickens laid eggs where they were often stolen or broken, and of course free range chickens ended up as meals by the free range dogs). We also introduced rabbit breeding. We didn’t introduce food that would be new to the area, because village people are conservative in what they eat, so you build good nutrition on what they already are comfortable eating.

Yet in the Andes regions of South America, guinea pigs– actually a larger version of what Americans raise as pets, which are called cuys– are commonly eaten to supplement the diet. 

My oldest adopted son told me that his “first mom” kept the cuys in the kitchen, where he used to sleep. At night, he would hear their soft chirps and would be comforted. She would feed them grass and scraps, and when they “felt weak” or otherwise needed a good meal, she’d kill a few of the younger cuys, and cook them for her family.

When I visited his home town, they treated me to a meal of one, and it was quite good.

So I find it interesting that a Colombian based NGO reports that locals have already started to breed and eat cuys in Central Africa. Yes, a Colombian would be more aware of this valuable source of protein than a European, and would recognize the importance of encouraging the trend. And the fact that locals already eat Cuys suggests that the locals will accept them as a food source.

If the idea catches on, it’s an idea for those working in other areas of Africa.

Better a cuy than the alternative: Eating monkey (which can spread disease) or having your child die of Kwashiorkor (caused by lack of protein in the diet).

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Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. She blogs at Makaipablog. 

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