After a clinical study at Kilifi District hospital had shown a high prevalence of geophagy among pregnant women, and a strong association of geophagy, anaemia and iron depletion, 52 pregnant women from the same hospital, and 4 traditional healers from the surroundings of Kilifi in Kenya were interviewed on the topic of soil-eating and its perceived causes and consequences. The findings were substantiated by results from an earlier anthropological study on maternal health and anaemia in the same study area.
Most of the pregnant women (73%) ate soil regularly. They mainly ate the soil from walls of houses, and their estimated median daily ingestion was 41.5 g. They described soil-eating as a predominantly female practice with strong relations to fertility and reproduction. They made associations between soil-eating, the condition of the blood and certain bodily states: pregnancy, lack of blood (upungufu wa damu), an illness called safura involving ``weak'' blood, and worms (minyolo).
The relationships the women described between soil-eating and illness resemble to some extent the causalities explored in biomedical research on soil-eating, anaemia and intestinal worm infections. However the women did not conceptualise the issue in terms of the single causal links characteristic of most scientific thought. Instead, they acknowledged the existence of multiple links between phenomena which they observed in their own and other women's bodies.
The women's ideas about soil-eating and their bodies shows the significance of both social and cultural context on the ways in which women derive knowledge from, and make sense of their bodily states. The cultural associations of soil-eating with blood, fertility and femininity exist alongside knowledge of its links to illness. Our findings show that soil-eating is more than just a physiologically induced behaviour; it is a rich cultural practice.
Geisslera, P.W.; Princeb, R.J.; Levenec, M.; Podad, C.; Beckerlegc, S.E.; Mutemid, W.; Shulmand, C.E. Perceptions of soil-eating and anaemia among pregnant women on the Kenyan coast. Social Science and Medicine (1999) 48 (8) 1069-1079. [DOI: 10.1016/S0277-9536(98)00409-2]