|[Africa, with Tanzania highlighted]|
When Velda came to take away the remains of my lunch, I offered her my untouched can of ginger ale.
"I don't drink soft drinks," she replied. Since I rarely do either, we started chatting.
Velda grew up in Tanzania, moved to Belgium, spent several years in London, and finally came to the United States. She returns to Tanzania regularly, and she is not happy with what she sees.
"I grew up eating lots of vegetables," she told me. "We might have had ice cream once every three years. But now people are eating American-style junk food. They don't know it's not good for them."
Tanzania's cigarette industry is big. In spite of national bans on most forms of advertising, Velda vividly recalls a huge billboard for Sportsman - one of Tanzania's most popular cigarette brands - right across from a school entrance where children can't help seeing it every day. And the children are smoking - she's seen them.
Supposedly regulated drugs are easy to buy without a prescription. Velda's 18-year-old nephew, once an honor student, is now a prescription-drug addict and a drop-out.
"The thing is," Velda said, "there's no way to get treatment for most diseases. It's not like here. If people want to be healthy, they have to take care of themselves. When they get sick because of junk food or smoking or drugs, they just die."
I checked the statistics. Tanzania's per capita income is $1700 in U.S. dollars. There is one physician for every 125,000 people (compare America's ratio of one physician for every 375 people; or Cuba's of one for every 156). Tanzanians live, on average, to age 53. Velda's twin sister died at age 23.
Velda, who is a kind and gentle nurse, gets angry when she thinks about what's happening to her people. "Why?" she kept saying. Why are international companies so aggressively promoting foods and cigarettes and drugs that will shorten people's lives and even kill them? Why is nobody stopping them? Why?