Integrated Regional Information Networks | March 22, 2010
Balbine Ibanda has seen the devastating effects of the disease called konzo. In the Yaka language, konzo means “bound legs.” And the description is accurate. People afflicted with the disease suffer paralysis in their legs.
Ms. Ibanda is director of the Catholic Centre in Kahemba, a territory in western Democratic Republic of the Congo, also known as the DRC. The centre cares for people with konzo. Ms. Ibanda has met families in which both parents are sick with konzo, so no one can harvest food from the fields. There is no cure for the disease. But people with konzo can learn to move around, using sticks or other walking aids.
The cases Ms. Ibanda has seen are part of an epidemic in the former Bandundu province of western DRC. Approximately 11,000 people have been struck by konzo. The disease typically affects children and women of childbearing age. People get konzo from eating poorly-processed cassava. Cassava naturally contains cyanide. If the cyanide is not removed, it makes people sick.
Francois Mwakisenda is director of the Kahemba health zone. He says people in the area are not taking the usual steps to remove cyanide from cassava. Locals normally soak cassava in water for five days before drying and milling. However, a food shortage is causing people to skimp on the process. They are in a rush to make cassava flour to feed their families or to trade for other foods such as meat, fish, and eggs.
It is not easy to determine whether cassava flour contains cyanide. If the flour tastes bitter, this may indicate a high level of cyanide.
Fortunately, there is a method to remove cyanide from cassava flour. It is being promoted in the DRC by the Cassava Cyanide Diseases and Neurolathyrism Network. Dr. Howard Bradbury is head of the network. He says villagers use a “simple wetting method” when they are unsure if cassava flour is safe.
First, you place the amount of flour you want to cook into a pan or basin and level the surface. Next, use the tip of a knife to mark the height of the flour. Slowly stir in clean water. Keep adding water until the wet flour reaches the line you marked. In other words, all the flour must be wet. It should not be as soupy as porridge, however, and it should not have any dry balls.
Spread the wet flour onto a mat or other clean surface. The spread flour should be no higher than a fingernail. Then leave the flour to “air out” so that cyanide will be released. You can either leave it in the hot sun for two hours, or in the shade for five hours. After being outside for the right amount of time, you know the flour is safe, and ready to cook.