What’s the protocol for visiting a former head of state? In Cape Verde, our delegation walked up to his door, knocked, and President Monteiro himself greeted us. This typifies the graciousness and modesty that he has shown in all of our interactions.
I visited Cape Verde with a delegation of the Regional Nutrition Working Group – an informal network of agencies engaged in combating undernutrition in West and Central Africa. A year and a half ago we approached President Monteiro, who governed Cape Verde for 10 years, to become the Regional Nutrition Advocate for West Africa. Since then he has been a constant voice for engaging high-level political support for nutrition. I have had the privilege of joining in his initial briefings, accompanying him in advocating with parliamentarians and at the World Health Assembly, and finally a visit to his homeland.
This is my first “real” visit to Cape Verde. I was here once for a conference, once in transit on my way to the US, and once spent 12 hours after an emergency landing of a Delta flight bound for New York. (I should perhaps also mention that my luggage spent six weeks here – having decided to take a detour on a flight back from Freetown to Dakar.) I have come with other regional colleagues to see firsthand the remarkable progress that Cape Verde has made since independence in combating undernutrition. Hunger and malnutrition have been a constant part of Cape Verde’s history – I came across a 1903 New York Times article on famine on the islands . Today however, despite importing over 80% of its food, Cape Verde has rates of acute malnutrition of 2.6% and chronic malnutrition of 9.7% among pre-school children – by far the lowest rates in all of West Africa. It is now confronted with challenges of overweight and obesity – and true to its visionary leadership is on the forefront of tackling these problems with promotion of physical activity, nutritional education and dietary diversification.
Our visit gave us insight into the level of leadership that has given such results – I was particularly struck by something the Minister of Public Health said: “We did not fight for independence just to be able to hoist up a flag – we wanted to do something for our people.” And “do something for our people” has certainly been the practice of successive governments and other key stakeholders in the country. HKI supports the local flour miller, MOAVE, as part of our regional food fortification initiative – and the pride in the voice of the director general as he explains why his company has committed to fortify all the wheat flour they produce with iron, folic acid and zinc is palpable.
President Monteiro’s time in office saw remarkable progress and his engagement as Nutrition Advocate has provided inspiration for all of us. We were accompanied on our trip by a group of journalists from French-speaking media – including Radio France Internationale. The great success story of how Cape Verde has tackled malnutrition is featured in a Priorité Santé broadcast that was selected as one of the top of the year for 2012 and played again this December. You can listen to it here (in French) – and I was very pleased to be able to contribute an interview.