Bread and Health, Published in New Era 26th February 2010

Bread workshop

Who is the target audience?

Namibian people, those willing to read about health, with at least high school education.

What do you want to tell them?

That we can look at eating behavior through a socio-cultural perspective.

What do you want the reader to feel?

Intrigued by the arguments I present about the link between bread choice and culture and social structures of the past.

ü       INSIGHT

ü       NEW ERA


THE MIRROR (no website)

The WHK observer (no website


I am 23 year old aspiring public health student that studied molecular biology at the Bachelor’s level. I want to write a public health column for NEW ERA. I don’t know if you have such a column, but in the event you do have one, I would like to contribute. Here is the first article I wrote, it is called Bread and Health:


Bread and Health

by Pancho Mulongeni

Today, the main types of bread that Namibians purchase are white, brown and whole wheat. Brown is the least the cheapest and least desirable of the three; one will always find it when all the white has run out at the local shop. White bread is bought by virtually everyone, while whole wheat is consumed by a select, mostly white, health-conscious stratum of society. Brown bread is the mutt, being neither white nor whole wheat, it looks like white bread dirtied by bits of dark wheat bran.

I never knew that before Namibian independence white bread was for whites only, till I watched NBC. I discovered this in vivid detail from the film “Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation”, which portrays life under the apartheid regime. The scene I am referring to takes place in the late 1950s, when the anti-apartheid movements were just crystallizing. A young boy goes into a small shop to buy a loaf of brown bread. Though he sees there is only one brown loaf left, he delays his purchase by looking at the other wonderful eats in the shop. When his eyes finally wonder back to the bread shelves, he notices the bottom brown bread shelf is empty. So he takes a white loaf instead. Immediately, the shop owner apprehends him and informs him of the status quo: “Don’t you know that white bread is only for whites?” before he sends him off with a warning to never set foot in his shop again.

Of course, the irony of this apartheid policy is that brown bread is actually healthier than white bread. There is a great deal of medical literature dealing with the health benefits of eating brown and whole wheat bread. For our purposes, it is sufficient to note that since brown bread flour is less refined that white bread flour, it contains nutritional value that is lost during the refining process. This is because consumption of refined food, such as peeled rice, white flour and sugar foods puts one at increased risk developing of diabetes and heart disease.

But in the eyes of most black people today, brown represents the inferior food they ate back in the days of the struggle. Akin to the substandard Bantu education they received at schools, brown bread is part of all that was of no worth to whites and so it was allocated to the blacks. Consequently, black self esteem in post apartheid Namibia is tied to the bread black people buy: “I think it is something subconscious, but I go for the white bread and not the brown… its probably because white bread was only for whites then and brown bread was all we could buy” tells Selma, a black medical doctor I interviewed. It is ironic that even a doctor (who is fully aware of the fact brown bread is healthier than white bread) will consistently choose white bread. As Selma says, her purchasing choice underlies a desire to attain self worth through the consumption of ‘white food’, which was then considered the ‘best food’. Luckily Selma does buy whole wheat bread which redeems her purchasing proclivities.
Now I do not mean to belittle the possibility that certain people may just dislike the taste of brown bread. Individuals will have their preferences, irrespective of their race. What I am asking is that we examine the prevailing assumption in Namibia that black people will prefer to eat white bread if they are given the choice. The aggregate of individual distastes for brown bread produces a collective distaste amongst our black communities. Indeed, when we look at aggregate, we realize how individual preferences are dependent on collective representations. A dislike of brown bread is not arbitrary, but is influenced by the culture one lives in; a culture that transmits untouchable values from one generation to the next.

The field of study which deals with the cultures of people is called anthropology.
An anthropologist takes into account the fact that racist laws of the past have an impact the culture of black people today. These laws were certainly barriers that prevented black people from buying white bread and so anthropologists would refer to them as social structures. Though these structures were dismantled at independence, they engendered a collective representation of brown bread as something undesirable.

As a result of independence, educated black Namibians became socially mobile and moved out of places such as Katutura, which were for blacks only. A possible by product of the move from Katutura to former white-only neighborhoods, was the exchange of brown bread for white bread. Here, social emancipation crossed the path of cultural construction and as the anthropologist William Dressler said, it left its mark on the human body.

According to the United Nations World Food Program, about 400 000 Namibians suffered from hunger and inadequate nutrition in 2006. Given this startling statistic, which may be worse in 2010, how does Namibia engage with the international community in the fight against hunger? At the World Food Summit in Rome in November 2009, the Namibian delegate called for our country to be reclassified as a low income country. He claimed that the reality on the ground shows that we are wrongly categorized as a middle income country. To what extent is this true? The anthropologist would be adept at tracing out the several realities people face in this land of contrasts. Indeed, through an ethnographic work the anthropologist would illuminate abstractions such as “middle income country” with true life accounts. Thus, we can fully capture how some people at the grassroots prevent hunger, while others are caught in a daily struggle for nourishment. It is precisely the anthropological perspective that is adept at understanding the nutrition problem in Namibia, which is perhaps our biggest public health challenge.

Through my discussion of black peoples’ choice of bread, I hope to have illustrated how health is influenced by the way individuals construct meanings about what they eat. Moreover, I hope to have shown how the anthropological perspective could be used to uncover the nature of hunger and survival in Namibia. This idea has already been demonstrated by anthropologists internationally, such as the works of Joao Biehl about life on the margins of society in Brazil. In Namibia, anthropologist Debie LeBeau has done research on the roles of alcohol consumption and patterns of sexual relations in HIV transmission. One her finding was that HIV transmission is exacerbated by exchange – direct and indirect – of sex for food. Yes indeed, issues of food are central to understanding human health. So we should study them from up close.

If you like this article, or did not, please feel free to email me at

Since I am not a journalist by training and I really love public health, you would not need to pay me for these articles. However, I will appreciate a donation to research expenses (taxi fare) and a press card so that I can attend workshops, launches or other media events where issues of public health are of concern.

I am in the process of writing a new article on non-communicable diseases. It is the product of a lecture on “HIV and Human Rights” with Mihaela Clayton from ARASA on December 9th 2009, when a discussion about HIV being like “any other lifelong disease” emerged amongst members of the HIV clinicians society.


I would like to continue more as a volunteer writer for the society. However, then please would you grant me free membership to your email list, South African Medical Journal and all lectures as this is how I obtain my source material. I am in the process of writing a new article on non-communicable diseases. It is the product of the last meeting on “HIV and Human Rights” with Mihaela Clayton from ARASA on December 9th 2009, when a discussion about HIV being like “any other lifelong disease” emerged.

Also I would probably need to interview some of you physicians for the articles and I hope that you will give me some of your time, were I too ask you (even before or after hours).  Currently, I need to interview Dr Mugala for the article I am writing now, but she is so hard to get hold of.

I have been fortunate to have come to the lectures and the discussion that follow are really important. Hence, the column would serve as a means to reflect and refract on those discussions, while putting them in context of the issues at stake.


Pancho Mulongeni


About writinghealth

Wannabe Epidemiologist? Wannabe med anthro person? I guess. Christian, scientist (not Christian scientist), i mean like I studied molecular biology and I part of the RC Church. I also completed a Masters of Public Health, at the University of Cape Town, in Epidemiology and Biostatistics.
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One Response to Bread and Health, Published in New Era 26th February 2010

  1. how are you?

    Thanks for sharing, I have digged this post

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