Pica: Another one bites the dust

Soil, a tasty treat for pregnant women with strange cravings.

Apparently, the phenomenon called pica, which refers to the craving of clay or soil (among other non-food items), is a well-documented occurrence that has been happening for centuries all around the world and for the last year and a half right under my giant nose in the Southern African region, where it is most common.

Just when I thought I was beginning to understand the Malawian diet, in walks a skinny girl into the local bar chewing on, wait for it, a rock! Yes, her musungu boyfriend confirmed with a half-jeering half-concerned expression, the girl was eating hardened soil, and yes, he had seen her do this many times, and no, he would not like to try it as he has absolutely no interest in eating dirt!

I asked the girl why was she eating soil. She gave me a shy smile and said she liked it. She bought the stuff at the local market, added the boyfriend, who seemed to be looking for confirmation in the crowd that it was not just his opinion to think it was a bit mental to eat soil, and further more, to pay for it as if it was an ordinary food item.

A few other people sitting at the bar added their own bit of knowledge on the subject. Apparently this was a well-known habit amongst pregnant women – the boyfriend was quick to point out that young unpregnant women also eat it, though he looked a bit concerned – and that generally speaking, men do not partake in this odd habit.

…Right. So, wait. But, WHY? Why in the hell are pregnant – and sometimes unpregnant – Malawian women eating dirt!? The scarcity of answers was too much for this nosy little foreigner to bare, and so, after swallowing a couple of bites of soil, which reminded me of childhood, naturally, I decided to go looking for dirt merchants.

They call it dot, or doti in Chichewa, said the lady sitting in front of a wobbly table that held small plastic bags full of white rocks. Her ‘stall’ was in a narrow aisle of the central market, between the produce and fabric sections. For K30 (less than $0.25) women could get one of the little bags of rocks, which on average might last about a week, give or take a stony nibble. Her clientele was all-female, mostly pregnant, and her product would sometimes come from Nkhata Bay in the north of Malawi or from Lusaka, Zambia, where they had a different variety of clay. Mostly, the kind of clay consumed in Malawi came from the large termite mounts that spread all throughout the country. The vendor was, of course, a clay-eater herself, and when I asked her why she ate it I got the same shy smile and shrug that the girl at the bar had given me. “It’s good, taste it,” she said. I did. I even bought a bag, in case I developed a sudden craving, but mostly I was still hungry for answers.

At the maternity ward of Lilongwe’s main hospital, Kamuzu Central, I found myself surrounded by protruding bellies, and not a trace of crumbling soil. The thing is, a nurse explained to me, women don’t like to admit to their doctors that they eat doti because invariably the doctor will lecture her on the risks of getting anemia and suffering constipation. It’s not a tradition per se, the nurse said, but a bad habit that one should avoid while pregnant, like smoking.

Finally, it was Dr A. O. Nwafor who managed to clear up all my questions regarding soil-eating. Nwafor submitted a dissertation in 2008 as a requirement for an MMED at the University of Limpopo in South Africa. The dissertation, as you may have guessed, is about pregnant women who eat soil in the region where the doc worked. In the background research she – she? – uncovers a number of countries (Zimbabwe, Zambia, Nigeria, South Africa, Malawi) in Africa where pregnant women eat soil commonly. Perhaps even more interestingly, she tells of many other cultures around the world where people for various reasons eat soil. In the United States, for example, it is mostly a habit in the southern states and within the African-American community. One imagines an inheritance from slave ancestors.

This is what she says about Malawi: “In Malawi it is surprising for a pregnant woman not to practice pica ‘since this is how a woman knows that she is pregnant’. The taste of clay is claimed to diminish the nausea, discomfort and vomiting in ‘morning sickness’…”.

In other places around the world, pregnant women more commonly alleviate symptoms of morning sickness by chewing on ice – this is called pagophagy – however craving soil is by no means a Malawian or even African phenomenon. In White Plains, Georgia, there is a shop that sells “organic earth”, a.k.a. doti.

Nwafor’s research pointed out that women who eat soil thought it tasted nice and believed the soil would give them energy, make them strong, and prevent a prolonged labor. None of these things have been scientifically proven, nor has there been a concise conclusion on the relationship between iron deficiency and soil-eating, though doctors in Malawi insist on telling their patients that eating soil gives them anemia.

So, yeah. I guess we all learned something today. Well, except for those of you who already knew about soil eaters, in which case, you could have saved me a lot of running around if you would have just told me, you know. Jeez, thanks a lot.

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