News & Current Affairs

November 11, 2010

Developing world warned of ‘obesity epidemic’

Filed under: Health and Fitness — Tags: , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 8:31 pm
Obesity Developing countries are catching up industrialised nations

Developing countries should act now to head off their own “obesity epidemic”, says a global policy group.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) says obesity levels are rising fast.

In a report in the Lancet medical journal, it says low-income countries cannot cope with the health consequences of wide scale obesity.

Rates in Brazil and South Africa already outstrip the OECD average.

Increasing obesity in industrialised countries such as the UK and US has brought with it rises in heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

However, increasing prosperity in some developing countries has led to a rise in “Western” lifestyles.

Now the OECD warns that they are catching up fast in terms of obesity rates.

Across all the countries represented in the OECD, 50% of adults are overweight or obese.

Childhood obesity

Rates in the Russian Federation are only just below this, and while fewer than 20% of Indians are classed this way, and fewer than 30% of Chinese people, the body says things are worsening fast.

graph

The report recommends that these countries act now to slow the increase, with media campaigns promoting healthier lifestyles, taxes and subsidies to improve diets, tighter government regulation of food labelling and restrictions on food advertising.

Its authors calculate that doing this would add one million years of “life in good health” to India’s population, and four million to China over the next 20 years.

The cost would be considerable but the OECD insists that the strategy would pay for itself in terms of reduced health care costs, becoming cost-effective at worst within 15 years.

Michele Cecchini, one of the report’s authors, said: “A multiple intervention strategy would achieve substantially larger health gains than individual programmes, with better cost-effectiveness.”

She suggested that specific action be taken to target childhood obesity.

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July 20, 2009

Milan to enforce teen drink ban

Milan to enforce teen drink ban

Italian teenagers drinking alcohol (file image)

Rising binge drinking is forcing changes to Italy’s relationship with alcohol

Milan has banned the consumption and sale of alcohol to young teenagers in an effort to curb binge-drinking.

Parents of children under the age of 16 caught drinking wine or spirits will be liable to heavy fines of up to 500 Euros ($700;£450).

A third of 11-year-olds in the city have alcohol related problems, it says.

In a country where for centuries wine has been part of local culture – and prohibition would be unthinkable – the ban has come as a shock.

But the authorities are deeply concerned about the increase in consumption of alcohol by children as young as 11 in the country’s industrial and financial capital.

So as an experiment, supplying alcohol – either wine or spirits – to youths under the age of 16 in bars, restaurants, pizza shops and liquor stores will be banned.

Heavy fines will be imposed on the parents of offending children and on shopkeepers or bar owners who serve them.

A national law banning the sale of alcohol to under-16s is only loosely enforced, as Italian families are used to sometimes giving young children a teaspoon of wine as a family party treat.

In past centuries, Italian children would sometimes even be given wine to drink in preference to water which was often polluted.

There has been a storm of protest by bar owners who refuse to act as alcohol police for young people.

But changing social customs mean that old easy-going attitudes towards consumption of alcohol in Italy will have to change.

Lessons for Karachi sex workers

Lessons for Karachi sex workers

Zeba Raman is a 28-year-old Pakistani sex worker. Born into the profession in Karachi’s red light district of Napier Road, she plies her trade all over the city.

nadia
I did not know that precautionary measures should be taken during sex
Nadia, sex worker

She is celebrating the launch of an initiative to promote health awareness among sex workers.

“We are now revealed to society,” says Ms Rahman.

But prostitution remains illegal and anathema to many in Muslim-majority Pakistan. It is an ever-present fact of life, but never really acknowledged.

The last two decades, given the increasing Islamisation of Pakistani society, have further reinforced stereotypes about such women.

But the profession has only grown.

Karachi alone has at least 100,000 female sex workers, according to data gathered by local welfare organisations.

Lahore has 75,000 sex workers while the military garrison town of Rawalpindi has at least 25,000.

‘Spirit of openness’

Pakistan’s first workshop on health awareness among sex workers has contributed to a new spirit of openness in the profession.

“Earlier we were doing our jobs secretly, but now we can raise our voice for our rights,” Ms Raman says.

ghulam murtaza
It was very difficult to gather sex workers under one roof. Many were simply afraid of being arrested
Dr Ghulam Murtaza

The three-day event was recently held in Karachi by Gender & Reproductive Health Forum (GRHF) – a local social welfare organisation – in collaboration with the United Nations Fund for Population (UNFPA).

“I am very happy that a number of sex workers attended the workshop,” says Ms Raman.

“This has provided us an opportunity to gather and exchange views and experiences.”

She is not the only one to have benefited.

“I became a sex worker five years back,” says Nadia, 26.

Nadia said that she learned about safe sex measures at the workshop.

“I had heard about HIV/Aids, but I thought that it could only be transmitted through blood transfusions.

“I did not know that precautionary measures should be taken during sex as well,” she said.

Before the workshop, most of sex workers who attended did not know about measures for safe sex, Nadia added.

Dr Ghulam Murtaza is the head of the GRHF organisation and the man behind the workshop.

Ziba Raman

Ms Raman said she drew a lot of confidence from the workshop

The man behind the workshop, GRHF head Dr Ghulam Murtaza , said the organisation was working to create awareness of safe sex among female sex workers.

“It was very difficult to gather sex workers under one roof. Many were simply afraid of being arrested,” he said.

“We offered several incentives and assurances and paid them 1,000 rupees ($20) per day for their attendance,” he said.

“Finally, we succeeded in gathering almost 100 sex workers at the workshop held at a local hotel”.

Most of the sex workers who attended avoided the cameramen there., saying they were afraid of being exposed to their families.

Many said their husbands or family members did not know they were sex workers. They told their families that they work for private firms.

Despite these barriers, Dr Murtaza said the workshop had been successful.

“We have trained some female sex workers. They will now go to their community to create awareness among their co-workers.”

‘Reinvigorated’

The international participants at the workshop were of the view that Pakistan was still relatively safe as far as HIV/Aids was concerned.

I can now continue with my profession with more confidence
Zeba Raman

The UNFPA representative, Dr Safdar Kamal Pasha, said at least 100 HIV- positive sex workers had been found in central Punjab. But the number of HIV-positive women was not high among female sex workers in Pakistan.

“It can be controlled by creating awareness about the disease among sex workers and about usage of precautionary measures,” he said.

The workshop was widely considered to be a success and Dr Pasha said they were considering organising a national convention for sex workers next year.

The sex workers themselves were moved by the workshop.

“Having attended the workshop, I feel reinvigorated,” Zeba Raman declares.

“I can now continue with my profession with more confidence.”

Alarming Africa male gay HIV rate

Alarming Africa male gay HIV rate

HIV

The reports said more education was needed to combat HIV among gay men

HIV rates among gay men in some African countries are 10 times higher than among the general male population, says research in medical journal the Lancet.

The report said prejudice towards gay people was leading to isolation and harassment, which in turn led to risky sexual practices among gay communities.

But the risks are not limited to gay men, as many of the infected also have female sexual partners.

The report called for greater education and resources in the fight against HIV.

The Oxford University researchers found that the prevalence of HIV/Aids among gay men in sub-Saharan African has been “driven by cultural, religious and political unwillingness to accept [gay men] as equal members of society”.

Lead researcher Adrian Smith told the EXPRESS there was “profound stigma and social hostility at every level of society concerning either same-sex behaviours amongst men, or homosexuality”.

“This has the consequence that this group becomes extremely hard to reach,” he said.

Mr Smith said that gay male sex had always been acknowledged as being particularly dangerous in terms of contracting HIV/Aids.

But gay men were also more likely to be involved in other high-risk behaviours, including sex work, having multiple partners and being in contact with intravenous drug use, he said.

Education crucial

George Kanuma, a gay rights activist in Burundi, told the EXPRESS many men “hide their sexual orientation” to get married and have children, but continue to have sex with men.

“Most of them know that you can contract HIV/Aids or any infection when you are making sex with women, but not when you are having sex with another man,” he said.

Mr Smith said there was “a desperate need for delivering a basic package of prevention for HIV”, including ensuring supplies of condoms.

“There is also a need to sensitise, educate and train those involved in HIV, the interface with men who have sex with men, to educate those involved in care and prevention activities,” he said.

The United Nations Aids agency estimates that 33 million people in the world have HIV, of whom two-thirds live in sub-Saharan Africa.

July 19, 2009

China quarantines school groups

China quarantines school groups

Four British pupils in Beijing hotel

Some of the British teenagers holed up in a hotel room in Beijing

More than 100 schoolchildren and their teachers from the UK and US have been quarantined in Beijing after eight children were found to have swine flu.

The four UK and four US children are being treated in a Beijing hospital and are said to be in a stable condition.

China has this year quarantined hundreds of foreign visitors who have shown symptoms of the H1N1 virus.

The four Britons taken ill are from London schools. A further 52 UK pupils and teachers are under quarantine.

The hospitalised pupils are year nine students, aged 13 to 14; three from the Central Foundation Boys School, Clerkenwell, and one from Parliament Hill School, Camden.

High temperatures

Meanwhile, four of the British pupils under quarantine have told the news from their hotel room they are being well looked after.

The four, who attend Clevedon School in north Somerset, are all in their late teens and are part of a group of 12 from that school, plus two teachers.

“We are quarantined in the hotel and are all currently well as we have daily temperature checks which are all good,” they said in an e-mail sent from their hotel room.

“The hotel is really nice and we have proper toilets. We hope we experience more of China as we should be out within four days.”

One of the boys, Christopher Hicks, said that they had been visiting the Great Wall of China when they were called back, because they had previously shared a bus with a pupil from another school who had tested positive for the virus.

Another pupil, Joe Robinson, said: “We’re being treated very, very well. The food’s great. We’ve got our own individual tellies.”

They also had individual rooms, he said, although they had to wear protective face masks and were not allowed outside of the quarantined zone.

More than 600 Britons are on the trip, organised by the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT), the Department for Children, Schools and Families, the British Council and Chinese organisation Hanban.

Speaking about the four UK pupils who have swine flu, the SSAT’s Katharine Carruthers said: “They are being extremely well looked after and cared for, to the extent where they’re getting pizza delivered to where they are. They are all happy and getting better.

“There are a number of children in quarantine in very comfortable conditions in a four-star hotel in Beijing, who have been in close contact with the swine flu cases.

“Everyone is in good spirits, getting involved in activities and carrying on their Chinese learning.”

The vast majority of the students are continuing their trip as normal, she said.

The BBC’s Quentin Sommerville, in Beijing, said three of the four UK children were found to have high temperatures when they arrived in Beijing earlier in the week.

They were taken straight from the airport to a hospital where it was confirmed they had the virus. A fourth classmate fell ill later.

Chinese health worker tests flight from London  9.7.09

Chinese health officials monitor passengers arriving in the country

The American children had been in contact with the UK group and four of them were also diagnosed as having the virus.

Amii van Amerongen, from London, told the news that her 15-year-old sister was one of the children under quarantine.

“She called me this morning telling me that she is confined in a hotel and she is being very brave about the whole thing. She said it was quite intimidating – they have these ‘guns’ that they point at your head which measure your temperature,” she said.

Chinese officials told the news that the children were being well looked after and they had regular contact with their families.

Simon Calder, travel editor for the UK’s Independent newspaper, told the news that many countries were using “thermal imaging” at airports to test travellers, and the UK was viewed as a high-risk area.


Have you or your family been quarantined in China? Send us your comments and stories

Swine flu pregnancy tips reissued

Swine flu pregnancy tips reissued

A pregnant woman

A suppressed immune system makes pregnant women more vulnerable

The Department of Health has attempted to clarify its guidelines to expectant mothers and parents with children under five on how best to avoid swine flu.

Its advice to practise good hygiene by washing hands and surfaces regularly has been re-issued after a woman with the virus died soon after giving birth.

The Royal College of Midwives (RCM) says all expectant mothers should avoid crowded places and unnecessary travel.

But the DoH says only the “particularly concerned” should consider the advice.

Concern over the effects of swine flu on new and expectant mothers has heightened since the death of Ruptara Miah, 39, in London’s Whipps Cross Hospital on 13 July. Her baby is said to be very ill in intensive care.

Good hygiene

Another child under six months old, who died in London, is also among the latest victims of the virus.

The refreshed DoH advice has been given greater prominence on its website.

Health experts say expectant mothers could suffer possible complications if they contract swine flu, such as pneumonia, breathing difficulties and dehydration, because they have suppressed immune systems. Young children are also vulnerable.

Most mothers-to-be with swine flu are being prescribed Relenza, an inhaled antiviral drug which treats the virus without reaching the foetus. However, where it is particularly severe, doctors can offer Tamiflu instead.

The NHS website stresses that most expectant mothers who contract swine flu will only have mild symptoms and recover within a week.

Belinda Phipps, chief executive of the National Childbirth Trust (NCT), said that while the risks for expectant mothers were low, women needed information to make an informed decision.

“If you are pregnant, you are slightly more susceptible to all infections. One of them is swine flu.

“It is important that pregnant women know that – and particularly other members of the population know that – so that they behave responsibly and if they are sick they don’t go and put themselves close to a pregnant woman.”

If you are pregnant, you are slightly more susceptible to all infections. One of them is swine flu
Belinda Phipps, NCT

The Department of Health said it advised women to plan their pregnancy carefully, but was not advising against trying to conceive.

“Mums-to-be are more vulnerable to any type of flu. It is particularly important that anyone who has existing health problems and is thinking about starting a family should talk to their GP first, as they normally would,” a DoH spokesman said.

Louise Silverton, deputy general secretary of the RCM, said women could not be expected to wait for the first wave of the pandemic to end before trying for a baby.

Speaking on BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show, Alan Johnson, the new home secretary, said an unexpected aspect of the virus was that it was attacking the young, not the elderly as with seasonal flu.

He called on parents to keep using their common sense, saying the “vast majority” had been following public health advice.

Rates of flu-like illness

Twenty-nine people have now died in the UK after contracting swine flu – 26 in England and three in Scotland.

The government has warned that the number of deaths from the virus this winter in the UK could reach between 19,000 and 65,000.

However, during the 1999 to 2000 winter, seasonal flu deaths reached 21,000 and even during average winters there are normally anywhere between 6,000 to 8,000 deaths.

Swine flu public health poster

The National Flu Service will go live at the end of next week


We asked you whether you were concerned about the effects swine flu might have on expectant mothers. Here is a selection of your comments.

I am in the third trimester of pregnancy, and I am asthmatic. I am concerned that neither Tamiflu or Relenza will be suitable for me if I contract swine flu.
Louise, Nottingham

This is such stupid advice. I am pregnant and travel to work every day on a packed Tube. How am I supposed to avoid crowded places and unnecessary travel? It’s impossible. I can’t just stop going to work can I?
Laura, Hertfordshire

My daughter has a 4yr old son who has swine flu, she is 4 months pregnant and worried in case she catches it and it harms the baby, we are also worried about the treatments used in pregnant women. There is to much contradiction going around to know what to believe.
Tina, Essex

I am currently 24 weeks pregnant and have been ill and at home for 5 days now with bad cold symptoms. After consulting the doctor by phone I was told it could possibly be swine flu but how am I to know? I am usually very level headed in these situations but not sure that not swabbing pregnant women with symptoms is wise – at least if we know if we have it we can be better informed!
Anonymous, Wales

I am 36 weeks pregnant and came into contact with Swine flu last week. I experienced a slight sore throat spoke with a nurse at NHS direct and my GP and was completely reassured that I was fine and not displaying any symptoms. There is definitely some scaremongering going on but if you seek appropriate medical advice your fears can be eased.
Jo, Romford, Essex

I have got a 14 month old child and am currently pregnant. I’m very worried we could all catch the virus as a lot of people where we live are getting it. Also it is going round schools where my niece goes. I believe there should be vaccinations soon as possible for young children and those who it could endanger more than others
Nikki, Chelmsford, Essex

July 11, 2009

Obama speaks of hopes for Africa

Obama speaks of hopes for Africa

US President Barack Obama, on his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa since taking office, has said Africa must take charge of its own destiny in the world.

Mr Obama told parliament in Ghana during his one-day stay that good governance was vital for development.

Major challenges awaited Africans in the new century, he said, but vowed that the US would help the continent.

The US president’s trip comes at the end of a summit of eight of the world’s most powerful nations, held in Italy.

Ghana was chosen as the destination for the president’s visit because of its strong democratic record.

Mr Obama headed from parliament to Cape Coast Castle, a seaside fortress converted to the slave trade by the British in the 17th Century. He was accompanied by his wife, Michelle, a descendant of African slaves, and both of his young daughters.

People crowded into a public area outside the fort to greet Mr Obama, with those unable to get a place in the throng climbing onto nearby roofs and filling balconies just to catch a glimpse of the US leader.

Africa’s choice

Mr Obama spoke to parliament shortly after a breakfast meeting with Ghanaian President John Atta Mills.

He wore a broad grin as he was greeted at the podium by a series of rousing horn blasts from within the chamber.

US President Barack Obama speaks to the Ghanaian parliament
Development depends upon good governance. And that is a responsibility that can only be met by Africans
US President Barack Obama

“Congress needs one of them,” Mr Obama joked, before turning to more serious matters.

“I have come here to Ghana for a simple reason,” the US president said: “The 21st Century will be shaped by what happens not just in Rome or Moscow or Washington, but by what happens in Ghana as well.”

Delivering a message that “Africa’s future is up to Africans”, Mr Obama conceded that the legacy of colonialism had helped breed conflict on the continent.

“But the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade, or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants,” he added.

He praised Ghana’s own progress, governance and economic growth, saying Ghana’s achievements were less dramatic than the liberation struggles of the 20th Century but would ultimately be more significant.

“Development depends upon good governance,” Mr Obama told legislators. “That is the ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long.

“And that is a responsibility that can only be met by Africans.”

‘Yes you can’

Expanding on his message, Mr Obama said four key areas were critical to the future of Africa and of the entire developing world, citing democracy, opportunity, health and the peaceful resolution of conflict.

ANALYSIS
Andrew Harding, BBC News, Accra
Andrew Harding, BBC News, Accra

The speech has gone down extremely well. This is a country that has been enormously proud to play host to Mr Obama and referred to him as a brother. People say endlessly that he is part of the family and they are expecting a great deal of him.

It was a very broad-ranging speech but Mr Obama has an ability because of his heritage, his Kenyan father, to reach out and speak to Africans in a way that I think most foreign leaders would find very difficult.

There are very few barriers for Mr Obama in this conversation that he is trying to initiate with Africans and I think that this speech will have ticked many, many boxes.

This is Mr Obama trying to link Africa into the international community.

He hailed Ghana’s democratic society, calling for strong parliaments, honest police, independent judges and a free press across Africa.

However, there were some blunt words directed at other countries, many of which have been undermined by despotic leaders and corrupt politicians.

“Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions,” Mr Obama told his audience.

“No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny.”

He pledged to continue strong US support for public healthcare initiatives in Africa, and called for sensible use of natural resources such as oil in the face of the threat of climate change.

“Africa is not the crude caricature of a continent at war,” Mr Obama added. “But for far too many Africans, conflict is a part of life, as constant as the sun. He described wars as a “millstone around Africa’s neck”.

“You have the power to hold your leaders accountable, and to build institutions that serve the people,” Mr Obama said, describing freedom as Africa’s “inheritance” and urging the continent to beat disease, end conflict and bring long-lasting change.

In an echo of his presidential election campaign, he drew his speech to a close with a version of his trademark slogan: “Yes you can,” he told the gathered legislators.

Tight security

On the streets of Accra, many billboards welcoming Barack Obama have been erected, including one showing an image of the president and wife with the words: “Ghana loves you”.

A young supporter listens to Barack Obama's speech

Barack Obama’s speech was welcomed by Ghanaians of all ages

People have poured into Accra for a glimpse of the president during his 24-hour stay in Ghana.

But security is tight for the president’s visit, and few ordinary Ghanaians will have the chance to glimpse the first African-American President of the United States.

Mr Obama arrived in the capital late on Friday, fresh from the G8 summit in Italy where heads of state agreed on a $20bn (£12.3bn) fund to bolster agriculture – the main source of income for many sub-Saharan Africans.

July 9, 2009

US worker dies in chocolate vat

Filed under: Health and Fitness, Latest — Tags: , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 3:27 pm

US worker dies in chocolate vat

A man has died after falling into a vat of hot chocolate at a factory in the US state of New Jersey.

Vincent Smith Jr, 29, was emptying pieces of solid chocolate into the melting vat when he slipped from a platform into the 2.5m (8ft) deep unit.

A spokesman for the local prosecutor’s office said Mr Smith appeared to have died instantly from a blow to his head by a paddle mixing the chocolate.

His colleagues at the factory tried to shut down the mixer, but were too late.

Mr Smith was a temporary worker at the Cocoa Services Inc plant in the city of Camden.

‘Need answers’

Jason Laughlin, from the local county prosecutor’s office, said: “There are paddles, called agitators, that are moving inside this vat. He was hit by one of them before someone could hit the shut-off valve.”

Investigators said the chocolate had reached 49C (120F). It was being melted in the factory before being shipped out to other companies to make into chocolate bars and other sweets.

Mr Smith had been in the vat for about ten minutes before rescue crews arrived.

Thombe Smith, told journalists: “We just really need to know what happened to my cousin. We just need some answers.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, part of the US Department of Labor, is investigating the accident.

July 4, 2009

Self-help ‘makes you feel worse’

Filed under: Health and Fitness, Latest — Tags: , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 1:31 pm

Self-help ‘makes you feel worse’

Psychologist and patient

Self-help mantras are a common therapeutic technique

Bridget Jones is not alone in turning to self-help mantras to boost her spirits, but a study warns they may have the opposite effect.

Canadian researchers found those with low self-esteem actually felt worse after repeating positive statements about themselves.

They said phrases such as “I am a lovable person” only helped people with high self-esteem.

The study appears in the journal Psychological Science.

A UK psychologist said people based their feelings about themselves on real evidence from their lives.

The suggestion people should “help themselves” to feel better was first mooted by Victorian Samuel Smiles 150 years ago.

Repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, such as individuals with high self-esteem, but backfire for the very people who need them the most
Joanne Wood
University of Waterloo

His book, called simply “Self Help”, sold a quarter of a million copies and included guidance such as: “Heaven helps those who help themselves”.

Self-help is now a multi-billion pound global industry.

‘Contradictory thoughts’

The researchers, from the University of Waterloo and the University of New Brunswick, asked people with high and low self-esteem to say “I am a lovable person.”

They then measured the participants’ moods and their feelings about themselves.

In the low self-esteem group, those who repeated the mantra felt worse afterwards compared with others who did not.

However people with high self-esteem felt better after repeating the positive self-statement – but only slightly.

The psychologists then asked the study participants to list negative and positive thoughts about themselves.

They found that, paradoxically, those with low self-esteem were in a better mood when they were allowed to have negative thoughts than when they were asked to focus exclusively on affirmative thoughts.

Writing in the journal, the researchers suggest that, like overly positive praise, unreasonably positive self-statements, such as “I accept myself completely,” can provoke contradictory thoughts in individuals with low self-esteem.

Such negative thoughts can overwhelm the positive thoughts.

If people are instructed to focus exclusively on positive thoughts, negative thoughts might be especially discouraging.

Real life

The researchers, led by psychologist Joanne Wood, said: “Repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, such as individuals with high self-esteem, but backfire for the very people who need them the most.”

However, they say positive thinking can help when it is part of a broader programme of therapy.

Simon Delsthorpe, a psychologist with Bradford District Care Trust and spokesman for the British Psychological Society, said self-esteem was based on a range of real life factors, and that counselling to build confidence – rather than telling yourself things are better than they are – was the solution.

“These are things like, do you have close family relationships, a wide network of friends, employment and appearance.

“If you’re not close to your parents, don’t have many friends, are unemployed and are unhappy with your appearance, it might be hard to have high self-esteem.

“But if your experience is the reverse of that it would be much easier to say ‘I’m OK’ and believe that.”

July 2, 2009

Americans seek their African roots

Americans seek their African roots

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey originally thought her ancestors were Zulu

First it was Oprah Winfrey’s wistful reach for the continent, now other prominent African Americans are finding their roots.

In 2005 Oprah Winfrey underwent DNA testing in an effort to determine the genetic make-up of her body’s cells.

The popular American talk show host wanted to know where her ancestors, taken as slaves to the United States, had come from.

Famous genes

Since then thousands of other African Americans have followed suit, many of them household names in the US.

Comedian Chris Rock discovered that he was descended from the Udeme people of northern Cameroon.

Chris Rock

Chris Rock is descended from the Udeme people of northern Cameroon

LeVar Burton, an actor who played the slave Kunta Kinte in the TV drama Roots, linked himself up genetically with the Hausa in Nigeria.

Civil rights leader Andrew Young traced his lineage to the Mende people of Sierra Leone and is also believed to be a distant relative of one of the leaders of the 1839 Amistad slave ship mutiny.

DNA testing has also resulted in some African Americans being bestowed with honorary African titles.

The Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker, who portrayed the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, was made an honorary chief of Igboland in south-eastern Nigeria.

He was given the title of Nwannedinambar of Nkwerre which means “brother in a foreign land”, during a visit to Nigeria in April.

Getting results

There are more than two dozen genealogy organisations in the US selling genetic ancestry tests but African Ancestry is the only black-owned firm.

It is also the first to cater specifically to African Americans. Of the half a million Americans who have purchased DNA tests, around 35,000 of them are African American.

African Ancestry charges $349 to test either a person’s maternal or paternal lineage.

Once the fee is paid, swabs used to collect a DNA sample from the inside of the cheek are sent to the customer and then back to African Ancestry’s laboratory.

We did not talk about where we came from when I was growing up
Lyndra Marshall

The DNA’s genetic sequence is extracted and compared to others in the firm’s database.

The company claims this contains 25,000 samples from 30 countries and 200 ethnic groups, and is the largest collection of African lineages in the world.

African Ancestry say that they are very precise in tracing where a person’s ancestors originate from.

Once this is known, a “results package” is sent out, including a print-out of a person’s DNA sequence, a certificate of ancestry and a map of Africa.

“It’s a kind of welcome to Africa package,” said Ghanaian-born Ofori Anor, editor of the African expatriate magazine, Asante.

Transformation

Gina Paige, a founder of African Ancestry, wants to transform the way people view themselves and the way they view Africa.

When many African Americans visited Africa in the past, they were interested mostly in kente cloths and masks, nowadays they want to know more about the country they are visiting.

A poster for African Ancestry

The company has been accused by critics of being inaccurate

Although they still visit the slave castles, they are now also interested in the price of property.

Purchasing a townhouse in the Ghanaian capital Accra or a commercial property in Sierra Leone’s Freetown feels less implausible.

“What we need now is for people to get deeply involved in one particular country or region or culture,” said Andrew Young, the civil rights leader whose consulting firm acts as a liaison for American companies wanting to do business in Africa.

There has been a change too in the way Africans see African Americans and claims of kinship that were once viewed with amusement are now embraced.

This is partly due to the emergence of President Barack Obama and because of the role played by African Americans in his historic election.

As a result, African politicians and businessmen want African Americans to lobby in the US on the continent’s behalf.

Traditional African rulers have also been busy handing out honorary chieftaincies to African Americans in the hope it will lead to an increase in investment and a boost in tourism.

With Obama being both African and American, and our president, this has made many of us interested in where we came from
Lyndra Marshall

Guinea-Bissau’s Tourism Ministry encouraged comedian Whoopi Goldberg to visit when in 2007, DNA tests showed she was descended from the Papel and Bayote people of the country.

Unfortunately, Goldberg has not taken up the offer as she has a fear of flying and has not been in an aeroplane for 20 years.

Unlike the Hollywood actress, as soon as Lyndra Marshall, a 56-year-old retiree from Maryland near Washington DC discovered her African heritage, she immediately boarded a plane for Ghana’s Ashanti region.

“We did not talk about where we came from when I was growing up,” said Ms Marshall.

Since she found out she was of Ashanti descent, she has been trying to get other people to visit and invest in the country.

Along with DNA technology, Ms Marshall credits President Obama with kindling an interest in Africa.

“With Obama being both African and American, and our president, this has made many of us interested in where we came from, too.”

Getting it right

Although many people are excited about the prospect of tracing their ancestry, critics say the work of America’s genealogy companies is far from accurate.

African Americans just want to be able to say they were once kings and once ruled the world
Ofori Anor
Editor, Asante magazine

On a visit to South Africa in 2005, Oprah Winfrey said that DNA testing had conclusively revealed where she is from. She thought she was Zulu but subsequent DNA testing showed she was a descendent of the Kpelle people of Liberia.

Professor Deborah Bolnick of the University of Texas is particularly critical of African Ancestry.

She says its database is too small to fulfil its marketing promise that it is “the only company whose tests will place your African ancestry in a present day country or region in Africa”.

“Consumers should know the limitations and complexities before they spend hundreds of dollars thinking they’re going to find an answer to who they really are,” said Professor Bolnick.

“It’s really much more uncertain than the testing companies make out.”

Despite these limitations, African Ancestry customers like Ms Marshall are convinced her results are correct.

“I have lots of family that look very Ghanaian, they are short like them, dark like them and I have a cousin that looks just like the Ashanti king.”

However, comments like this offend the Editor of Asante magazine.

“African Americans just want to be able to say they were once kings and once ruled the world,” said Mr Anor.

He feels that African governments and traditional rulers should stop the practice of granting citizenship and chieftaincies to African Americans.

“Just because your genetics show you came from a place, should that mean you can lay claim to that group of people or place now?”

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