Don’t drink the water or you’ll grow three heads

And if you don’t end up with three heads sticking out of your neck, then maybe you’ll suffer from a belly full of bloodsucking worms. The travel health warnings about many places in Africa can sound downright scary. You may have heard stories of people shivering in cold sweat and vomiting after eating at a restaurant or a 6-ft worm passing through someone’s stool. The list of don’ts is long. You have to know what info to take in. Some of it may be fear-mongering.

Here are the CDC recommendations for eating and drinking safely in South Sudan:

Unclean food and water can cause travelers’ diarrhea and other diseases. Reduce your risk by sticking to safe food and water habits.

Eat
  • Food that is cooked and served hot
  • Hard-cooked eggs
  • Fruits and vegetables you have washed in clean water or peeled yourself
  • Pasteurized dairy products
Don’t Eat
  • Food served at room temperature
  • Food from street vendors
  • Raw or soft-cooked (runny) eggs
  • Raw or undercooked (rare) meat or fish
  • Unwashed or unpeeled raw fruits and vegetables
  • Unpasteurized dairy products
  • ”Bushmeat” (monkeys, bats, or other wild game)
Drink
  • Bottled water that is sealed
  • Water that has been disinfected
  • Ice made with bottled or disinfected water
  • Carbonated drinks
  • Hot coffee or tea
  • Pasteurized milk
Don’t Drink
  • Tap or well water
  • Ice made with tap or well water
  • Drinks made with tap or well water (such as reconstituted juice)
  • Unpasteurized milk

 

To be frank, those recommendations are the CDC’s standards for many developing countries. This post is about food and drink consumption when you’re traveling to a developing country for an assignment or to take up a reporting position. Should you drink the tap water there? Can you eat the street food? What about raw fruits and vegetables?

You’ve got stories to cover and you wanna to be safe, you wanna mingle with people while you’re doing your job. So, this is practical information for reporters who frequently travel in developing countries. 

Your editor assigns you for a week in Koudougou, Burkina Faso, the third most populous city in the French-speaking West African country. You fly into Ouagadougou and hire a car for the 100km journey out west. On the way, you pass towns like Basziri, Poa and Kokologo where guys on the road are roasting lamb meat and kids are selling packs of yogurt and bottles of a frothy white liquid that you later learn is a juice made from the tangy fruit of the baobab tree.  After a delayed departure flight, you’re tired and you could go for a drink. You’re hungry, too. The peppered meat smells delicious. There’s also a woman sitting behind a tower of mangoes. They look refreshing. Should you take a bite?

Let’s back up. Before you ever stepped a foot in Burkina Faso, you would have already done your research about personal health and safety there. Perhaps you would have checked out the CDC’s recommendations , asked your fixer about what’s OK to eat and talked to other journos who have reported from there. At the end of the day, it’s your call. 

And you make the call based on your experience and research. You know how your body works. Are you prone to stomach discomfort or is your system pretty hardy? What is your limit? Everyone should have one. 

Water

I make inquires about drinking tap water wherever I am in the world. I usually ask about the source of the municipal water, ask folks if they drink it and go around getting more information about it. If I’m OK with it, I may drink it, boiling it first. 

But to be honest, I often look for private water company supplies and I’m even specific about the brand. I look out for brands that I’m familiar with or were recommended. If it’s Ethiopia, it’s usually Tena Water or Nestlé’s Abyssinia Springs. Ghana – Voltic, perhaps most trusted brand, Verna Natural Mineral Water, Belaqua and I can make do with Dasani. Swissta in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Senegal, Kirène of course (but never had a problem drinking from the tap in Dakar). Nigeria, it’s UAC Food Company’s Swan, but I can handle Coca-Cola’s Eva or Nestlé Pure Life if Swan isn’t an option. In Kenya, there are several, like Highlands, Kabarnet, Mt. Kenyan, Nestlé  and Wetland Springs.

I’ve recently invested in this: Travel Berkey Water Filter. It can fit in my suitcase.

And last year I bought this: AquaTru Filter for my home base in West Africa (where the tap water is most from wells and boreholes like in many developing regions) and it’s amazing. (Note: the well water at my current base doesn’t taste bad at all, but I tested it with one of those instant water safety kits and one time the results came back positive for bacteria, so that’s when I went for the AquaTru Filter). It’s too big to travel with so that’s why the Berkey comes in handy. I try not to play with water. In Maiduguri, northern Nigeria, chronic kidney disease is a major concern and public health specialists believe it may have something to do with the high concentration of heavy metals in the municipal water, which I’ve learned comes from the Ngadda River. A friend of one of my most trusted fixers there died of kidney failure in 2019. He wasn’t even up to 40 years old. He is just one of so many. I understand that it’s about drinking the contaminated water over years and that my short stays may not do much harm. But still.

There are many methods to sanitize water:

Bring the water to a rolling boil for a minute. You could use iodine or chlorine disinfectant tablets or powder packs. You could use ceramic, membrane or carbon filters. Keep in mind that filters may not remove viral pathogens so it’s still a safe idea to boil the water. 

Before I travel, if I’m staying in a hotel, I’ll call the hotel to ask if they have electronic kettles in the rooms. If they don’t I’ll put one in my suitcase.  You know, one of these things:

 

Or, I’ll just buy when one I get to the place and then give it to my fixer when I’m departing. 

You could use a UV light lamp or just go with bottled water – make sure the seal hasn’t been tampered with. And I know! Plastic bottles are enemies of the planet, but when you’re out in a remote area and you’re dehydrated, you need to think of your immediate needs and do the best you can. I try to remind myself that I’m only going to be in that community for some days and then I’ll go back to my base where I can continue living my plastic bottle-less life thanks to my amazing AquaTru filter. Another option is to pack lighter weight glass containers that you can carry around and keep refilling. I think that’s a more eco-friendly option. 

Fruits and Veggies

Water aside, what about fruits and vegetables? Depends on what works for you. Because I am an avid salad eater and I’m a huge advocate of eating something raw everyday, I go for thick-skinned fruits like bananas, oranges, pineapples, mangoes and avocados. For produce like carrots, grapes and tomatoes, I buy a bunch of them, keep them in my hotel room and vigorously rinse them with boiled bottled water and vinegar. Never had a noticeable problem. I do nuts, too – almonds and cashews mostly. I also travel with a jar of crushed moringa, just so I’m not missing out on nutrients. Sometimes, I travel with dried hibiscus flowers so I can make tea or just pop them in my bottled water for a refreshing drink. Hibiscus-infused water is supposed to be a  great detoxifier.  So, when I’m traveling, I don’t entirely skip out on fruit and vegetables because I love them too much, but I am selective. It’s very possible to get hepatitis A from fruits and veggies that have been contaminated by stool containing the virus, so that’s a risk you should keep in mind when eating uncooked produce. In 2016, about 90 people got hepatitis A from eating frozen strawberries imported from Egypt. Hep A is usually a short-term infection, doesn’t become chronic and usually goes away on its own after some weeks with rest and good hydration. 

Find what works for you

I once travelled with an Egyptian cameraman who had a policy when out for an assignment in a place where he was not certain about food hygiene: only eat fried food. When we had breakfast at the hotel together, he ordered fried chicken and French fries (what people in British-influenced countries called chips). And that’s pretty much what he had everyday throughout our time together. He explained to me that frying the food kills off any pathogens so he’s been doing that for years and says it’s been working for him. So, find what works for you.

Yes, I’ve read that food experts say fried food has an  “impeccable background in food safety” and some say it’s the safest food choice when traveling.  

 

“…a key advantage of deep fried food is that the food is fully immersed in 170-180°C fat for several minutes. Food experts would agree that this immersion is going to kill off approximately 99.9% of bacteria and, more importantly given current circumstances, viruses. This is particularly the case on the surface of food (where most bacteria, viruses and other germs are likely to be) as temperatures will be at their highest.”

 

I tailor my food choices to the place I’m traveling to. It’s not a one-size-fits-all rule. What I’m willing to eat in Arusha is way different than what I’m willing to eat in Zamfara and that’s different to what I’ll eat in Cape Town. What I eat in a hotel in Bangui is different than what I’ll eat in family home in Bangui. In extreme situations, I’ll stick with hard-boiled eggs, packaged crackers, my vinegar-rinsed produce and my moringa or hibiscus infused bottled water.

What to do when you’re in someone’s home and they’re offering you to eat dinner with them? Your fixer in Zambia has taken you to meet his parents in the agrarian community of Magobbo. His parents are so happy to have you in their home and on the dinner table, they’ve set out a feast of nshima (a cornmeal porridge), grilled kapenta (a sardine-line fish) ifinkubala (fried caterpillars with raw tomatoes on the side), chibwabwa (steamed pumpkin leaves) and fried ants (inswa). Actually, the fried ants may harbor less harmful bacteria than the other stuff and they’ve got protein. These are the kind of mental calculations that you’ve got to make. So what would you do? You’ve got many options. You could say no, and come with a lie that you’ve already eaten and your stomach is so full. You could join them and poke and pick at the food and hardly eat anything. You could say that you’ve brought your own food to snack on and sit down with them while they’re eating their food and you’re eating your chocolate-coated wafers. Or you could dig in wholeheartedly. It’s your call, but remember, this family is welcoming you into their home with a warm invitation to break bread with them. 

Some reporters stick to cooked foods with minimal seasonings, so things like: plain white rice, boiled potatoes and roasted corn. Some reporters won’t touch fruits or veggies at all and feel safer with starchy grain-based products: bread, spaghetti, rice, couscous.

There are some reporters who stick with ultra processed canned or packaged foods and yes, they’re considered relatively free of food-borne pathogens: store-bought bread, instant noodles, canned meats, cereal, potato chips, pretzels, popcorn, canned soup, canned beans, Coke, Sprite, candy bars. So reporters that go for this kind of stuff are basically sticking to packaged foods exported from Western countries and may even avoid drinking bottled water and go for soft drinks because they’re not too comfortable with the bottled water. Again, whatever works for you.

Just eat. You don’t want to get weary from hunger. And at the same time, you don’t want to put everything in your mouth. Because if you get sick, you won’t be able to do your reporting job effectively and that won’t be good. So I’d say you could save yourself a night of vomiting over the toilet by skipping the steamed monkey brain, especially if you’ve never had it before –  even if your fixer is telling you it will be the most delicious thing you will ever eat in your life. 

 

 

 

 

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