kwashiorkor

She was a pretty blonde with dreadlocks and a strict vegan diet. He was a cherubic guy guy who had always liked a double cheeseburger… until she came to work for us. All of a sudden he was ordering the vegan entrées when we went out for lunch, and we all knew why.

And I thought, “Dude. Watch out for kwashiorkor.”

No, kwashiorkor isn’t a sexually transmitted disease. It’s also not some nasty protector demon that keeps vegans safe from poseurs. And it wasn’t the name of her boyfriend.

To be fair, it also wasn’t a real risk for him, even if he went whole hog – I mean whole soy. Because, after all, there are proteinaceous vegan foods, and kwashiorkor is a disease of severe protein deficiency. Vitamin deficiencies and anemia are a much greater risk for vegans, and they generally address them with supplements.

But kwashiorkor is such a nasty-sounding thing, how could I resist thinking of it? It’s nasty-looking and nasty-feeling too. It sort of sounds like “squash your core,” but while this disease of protein deprivation emaciates parts of the body, it causes swelling of the hands, feet, and belly. Yes, this is “famine baby” disease. You’ve seen children affected with it in various appeal commercials for African famine relief, although it can affect children deprived of protein anywhere.

Given the association with Africa, though, it’s unsurprising that this is a word borrowed from Africa. It comes from the Ga language of Ghana. The word refers to the condition of a baby when a newer baby comes – no more breast milk.

The way we in North America say this word makes it sound like something truly dark, like the distorted whisperings of swirling spirits. But actually the word in Ga is kwašiɔkɔ – those open o’s are the vowel we say before the /r/ in or… and the entire sound that someone with an r-less British accent makes for or. So if you say kwashiorkor with a British accent you’ve got it pretty much right. And in that pronunciation it sounds not so much dark as hollow.

Hollow like the prospects of my co-worker. I don’t know if he really could have swapped meat for her permanently. But he didn’t get the chance. What came in the way? Not a vegan protector demon. Just her boyfriend.

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