Message in a bottle

2011-04-30 15:22

The people of De Aar are unhappy.

A recent study revealed that more than one in 10 babies up to the age of 12 months suffered from a severe form of Foetal Alcohol ­Syndrome Disorder (FASD).

It?also noted that almost 50% of children in the town were in some way?afflicted?by?the?condition?in 2001.

The report sparked a frenzy of media reports which suggested the Northern Cape dorp was a ­haven for drunkards.

“It has done so much harm in De Aar. A reporter once named De Aar ‘The FASD Capital of the World’ and this has stuck with the community. They feel victimised,” says Leana Olivier of the Foundation for Alcohol Research which is at the forefront of research programmes into the disorder in De Aar and the Western Cape.

The disorder, which occurs as a result of excessive drinking during pregnancy, is characterised by brain damage, facial deformities and growth defects.

Pastor Gideon Mosia of the Emthanjeni Community Church in De Aar’s Nonzwakazi township says there was much unhappiness in the community.

“We have 41 streets, 43 churches and two taverns in this township. People can’t even afford liquor because they are unemployed.

“They have no money. But an impression has been created that all we do here is drink. Yes, people drink just like in all the other ­places,” says Mosia.

“It is ridiculous,” says the principal of a primary school in De Aar who did not want to be named. “People from overseas came here with big cameras.

They all wanted to see this town where apparently people just drank all day. But we are normal people.”

Olivier says: “De Aar has the highest reported foetal alcohol ­syndrome disorder rate in the world. The word ‘reported’ is very important and you will notice that the foundation always emphasises this as we need to remind people that to date, only five prevalence studies have been done in SA, with two in the Northern Cape.

“Who knows what the prevalence rate is in Prieska or Carnarvon or Victoria West? It might be just as high as De Aar or maybe higher?”

The townsfolk blame the portrayal of the area as a drunkard’s paradise on the economically ­depressed?settlement?of?Malay Camp . This collection of a few hundred rundown, old houses is sandwiched between Nonzwakazi and De Aar East townships, just three kilometres from the centre of town.

It seems the hardest hit by binge drinking. By late morning dozens of people gather in a notorious part of the settlement where they indulge in the potent drink nqab’shushu. But Olivier explains that nqab’shushu is not the only cause of the disorder.

“It does not matter if you drink champagne, nqab’shushu, vodka or beer. It is the absolute alcohol content?of the drink that is important. The percentage of alcohol and the amount of it is what is harmful?(teratogenic)?to?the?foetus,” she says.

De Aar is situated in a sheep-farming area in the Upper Karoo region. The legacy of apartheid’s Group Areas Act is still apparent.

Almost all the whites live in the town together with a sprinkling of middle class people of other races, while coloureds live in the townships of De Aar East and the ­majority of blacks live in Nonzwakazi.

Once De Aar was a prosperous town with a railway junction that employed most of the townsfolk and even attracted thousands of others from other areas.

But the restructuring of ­Transnet in the mid-90s led to massive job losses which resulted in unemployment figures estimated at 80%.

“I never knew poverty when I was a child. The railway was the backbone of the economy. Each and every person in this town somehow benefited from that,” says Mosia, whose father worked on the railways.

The high unemployment figures and grinding poverty have been fingered as the causes of alcohol abuse which eventually ­contributes to the high rate of the disorder.

“Many of these people who have been unemployed, impoverished, hungry and desperate have lost hope and find themselves in
desperate circumstances,” ­explains Olivier.

“I am sure you would agree that this gives one good reason for drinking to drown your sorrows. Poverty, disempowerment and ­alcohol abuse always go hand in hand, creating a vicious cycle.

“Many of the people in De Aar are trapped in this cycle, but not all of them,” she says.

Mosia is raising two adopted children who have been diagnosed with?the?disorder.?

They?were found abandoned outside a local clinic. “They have learning difficulties. They forget simple things,” he says.

But recent reports by the foundation indicate that the tide is slowly turning.

Olivier points out that intervention programmes in the community have led to a 30% decrease in the prevalence rate of the disorder since 2003.

“... and yes, this is a first ever decrease in foetal alcohol ­syndrome disorder community prevalence rate in the world,” she says.

The foundation has been ­engaged in a project to educate mothers about the dangers of drinking during pregnancy.

There are numerous billboards at strategic intersections and streets warning of the dangers of the disorder.

There are also programmes designed to evaluate and monitor pregnant women and keep an eye on the instances of the disorder.

Makandela Sweyiya, a performing artist and pastor who works as a pharmacy assistant, says there appears to be a change in attitude since public health clinics started teaching people about the dangers of drinking during pregnancy.

“People fear giving birth to ­children with the disorder. We are educating them and there is ­certainly a change in their attitude after we teach them,” he says.

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