international citizens service

Following in his mother’s footsteps

I’m very proud of my son Matt who is in Ghana for three months delivering health promotions as a Latitude Volunteer organised by the International Citizens Service.

When I posted a picture of him on Facebook a good friend of mine said “he’s following in his mothers footsteps” which got me thinking about the time in 2010 when I took two weeks leave from work to volunteer in a kindergarten and orphanage, in Tanzania. I’ll dig out some photos and post them here soon.


I’ve not had much contact with Matt since he’s been in Ghana, but he has just sent me this gorgeous photo and reassured me that his diet is fine (he has coeliac disease) and he said he is pretty much living on cassava.

To be honest I had ‘google it’ and found out the following which is really interesting and not what I expected:


  • It’s a starchy root vegetable and looks a bit like a sweet potato.
  • It’s a primary food source as it is good at surviving drought and plant disease.
  • In Ghana it is the main source of carbohydrates.
  • It’s used in many of the same ways as the potato.
  • In Britain, cassava is mostly found in the form of tapioca pearls, made from cassava flour.
  • Malnutrition can occur when cassava is a major part of the diet because of the plant is low in protein and certain micronutrients.
  • Cassava plants can produce the poisonous substance cyanide as a way to fend off animals trying to eat them.
  • If not properly processed, the cyanide it contains can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, dizziness, weakness and death.
  • In folk medicine, the cassava plant is promoted for treating snakebites, boils, diarrhea, flu, inflammation, conjunctivitis, sores, and cancer.
  • Chewing the plant causes it to release an enzyme called linamarase, and linamarase, in turn, converts a compound in the plant called linamarin into cyanide.
  • The American Cancer Society reports on research exploring the use of cassava to kill cancer cells. See link:

I found the following by doing a quick literature review of journal articles using the search terms ‘cassava’ and ‘Ghana’:

  • Food crops such as cassava, and other tuber crops grown in mining communities in Ghana contain toxic or hazardous chemicals such as arsenic, cadmium and cyanide, from the soil. These chemicals are used in mining and contaminate the water, land and food crops causing a substantial hazard to humans. The research found above acceptable cancer risk ranges in the mining communities included in the study(1*).

What I’ve learned from this exercise is that nutrition and health challenges are very different the world over and although Matt is very unlikely to be impacted by what I’ve found out today, Ghanaian’s are living with these risks on a day to day basis. In the UK however we have a totally different set of challenges that are no less real. Non Communicable Diseases (NCD) such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer account for 88% of deaths in the UK whereas in Ghana they account for only 39% (2*). Definitely food for thought.

See the following links to the World Health Organisation (WHO) health profiles for: Ghana and the UK

*1. Obiri, S., Dodoo, D.K., Okai-Sam, F., Essumang, D.K. & Adjorlolo-Gasokpoh, A. (2006) Cancer and Non-Cancer Health Risk from Eating Cassava Grown in Some Mining Communities in Ghana. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment
118 pp37-49

*2. WHO – NCD Country Profile 2011.