Noma, or “grazers’ disease” is a tissue degenerative infection which attacks in particular children between two and six in certain areas of Sub-Saharan Africa. The mucous membrane in the mouth develops ulcers, which in turn degenerate surrounding tissue and eventually attack the bones of the face. The mortality rate is estimated at 80%. Simple treatment with antibiotics and proper nutrition can clear up the disease. It is, in other words, a disease of the Third World.

In 2009, “ What in the World,” RTE’s much praised documentary series, covered the disease during its fourth season in a programme entitled ”Noma in Niger.” The first programme of the series, in 2004, covered the extensive use child labour in India. The second series, in 2006, included a programme revisiting the Killing Fields of Cambodia. This highly readable book, written by the programme’s producer and presenter, Peadar King, recounts the experience of making the series and its high points between 2004 and 2009.

The series was designed to bring into sharp focus, for the Irish viewer, people and situations in the Third or Developing World, with particular reference to the how and why so many people live in abject conditions of poverty and disease. The book reflects this, with separate chapters giving screenshots of particular situations in nineteen countries, eighteen from Latin America, Africa and Asia, plus the United States (where the programme in 2006 covered the death penalty and the high incidence of black males in prison).

The author is unashamedly partisan, both in condemning the current world economic system and in upbraiding the political class in the west for, as he sees it, ceding power and authority to the international financial institutions who underpin this system. He is particularly scathing on the way in which the mainstream media contribute to what he calls the virtual invisibility of the poor and the disfavoured by ignoring them. He is also not slow to criticise Third World elites who misappropriate fortunes and exploit their own people.

Clearly neither the book nor the series can cover all the injustices in the world. However, by concentrating on the people experiencing injustice at first hand, the book brings the issues to life. So in Ecuador there are interviews with the leader of the Cofan people of Lago Agrio, pitched in legal battle with Chevron over pollution from oil drilling, and in Senegal with local fishermen who see their traditional fishing grounds plundered by large factory ships from Europe and Asia. In Laos the book carries heart rending interviews with the families of victims of cluster bombs, relics of US bombings a generation earlier.

There are some interesting revelations. In 1965 there were over 7000 Irish priests brothers and nuns in Africa, Asia and Latin America, 4000 in Africa alone; today there are fewer than 2000 Catholic missionaries in the entire continent. The vacuum, however, is being filled by Pentacostal and Evangelical missionaries with an effective, stripped down version of Christianity. The author asserts the growth of this religion is outstripping even that of Islam and far exceeds the efforts of the Catholic and mainstream Protestant churches, and, moreover, is doing so “ far away from the glare and scrutiny of most media.”

Population growth in Africa is stunning. In 1950 Africa had 221 million inhabitants, Europe 547 million. By 2010 Europe’s population was 738 million while Africa had risen to over a billion. The pressure on resources is enormous and growing. The continent is vastly wealthy in terms of natural resources, yet very little trickles down to the ordinary African. This is most dramatically portrayed in the chapter on oil rich Angola, a proxy battlefield during the Cold War, with the world’s most expensive capital city – Luanda, a country in which half the population subsist on a dollar a day, from which $10 billion in oil revenues seeps out annually, and which boasts Africa’s first billionaire – the President’s daughter.

The book will be an eye-opener for some, a timely reminder for others, of the human cost to those at the bottom, of the current way the world’s economy is managed to sustain the lifestyles of those at the top. Like the series, it is disturbing and thought provoking.

April 2013


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