The People Who Eat Dirt

June 17, 2016

Sheila was a child in Cameroon when she first got hooked on kaolin.

“I was in primary school,” she says. “My aunt would eat it, and it was often me who had to go and buy it for her.” Sheila is currently studying at university in France. Many people back home, she says, continue to consume this substance every day. Some even become dependent on it.

Kaolin isn’t exactly hard to come by – you can purchase it from most Cameroonian markets – but it’s not something that appears on any lists of banned substances. Kaolin isn’t a new street drug. It’s dirt.

Eating dirt, or geophagy, has a long history in Cameroon. Colonial era texts concerning the region describe the behaviour in detail. “I am told that all of [the children] eat it,” writes one perplexed author in Notes on the People of Batanga. “Even those belonging to the mission, who are […] strangers to the sensation of hunger.”

According to Sera Young, resident geophagy expert at Cornell University in the US, it has a long history around the world.

Young has spent nearly two decades getting her head round this behaviour, and in a comprehensive study  analysing nearly 500 historical and contemporary accounts from around the world, she and her fellow researchers documented its global prevalence.

Geophagy has been reported in countries as diverse as Argentina, Iran and Namibia, and certain trends keep appearing in  the team’s analysis. Consumption seems to be higher in the tropics, and two groups tend to gravitate towards it in particular: children (predictably, perhaps) and pregnant women.

Of course, the lower rates seen in other countries could well be a result of underreporting owing to cultural taboos.

“These non-food cravings happen a lot, and they happen right under our noses,” says Young, citing a case she heard of a renowned opera singer in New York whose dark secret was the desire to eat dirt during pregnancy. Young’s own interest in geophagy was piqued while undertaking field work in rural Tanzania. “I was conducting interviews with pregnant women about iron deficiency anaemia,” she says. “I was sitting on the floor of this woman’s house, and I asked her what she liked to eat during pregnancy, and she said: ‘Twice a day, I take earth from the wall of my house and I eat it.’”

Understandably, Young was shocked. “Eating earth goes against everything we are trained to do,” she says.

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