In Bangui, A Grizzled Expat Feeds Hungry Kids With Algae

The protein-rich algae spirulina is abundant and affordable in the Central African Republic, making it a nutritional alternative to help feed kids in the developing world.

Feeding spirulina to the children of Bangui
Feeding spirulina to the children of Bangui
Natacha Tatu

BANGUI â€" Freddy maneuvers his 4x4 with a steady hand, skillfully slaloming between bumps and potholes. Normally, at this time of day, he'd be in his restaurant, the Relais de Chasse (hunting lodge), a popular eatery he runs with an iron grip here in the capital of the Central African Republic. Instead, the aging French expat is on the road to a cooperative hidden in the middle of luxuriant tropical vegetation, where the miracle product he's been talking to us about for the past several days is made.

The product is called spirulina, a freshwater microalgae that has almost unrivaled nutritional properties â€" proteins, vitamins, beta-carotene, trace elements, it's all there â€" and can be used therefore as a dietary supplement. It is well-known among naturopaths, who say it can boost sick people's immunity, improve athletic performance, even help students concentrate better. Most importantly, spirulina can get a child suffering from dietary deficiencies on his or her feet in just a matter of weeks.

Spirulina costs a fortune in France, more than 150 euros per kilogram. But in the Central African Republic, it sells for about a fifth of the price, which is why it is a serious, natural and affordable alternative to the famous "Plumpy'Nut," a French-made sugar and peanut paste that is widely used to fight child rickets in developing countries.

A spoonful a day

The road passes through a huge wild cemetery, surrounded by nature, on the outskirts of Bangui. There are graves as far as the eye can see, some of them freshly dug. They reach right up to the base of a large rusty sign that reads, "Burying bodies here is strictly forbidden."

Many of the graves contain children or young adults who died from AIDS or were victims of the terrible civil war that recently devastated the country. There are also a handful of expats buried here, people that Freddy knew. "This is where my friends are waiting for me," he says, slowing down. He is quiet for a moment, but quickly lights up again. "They might actually wait a long time for me, you know, because I won't stay in Central Africa forever."

Freddy comes from Brittany, in France, but has spent almost half his life in Africa. He regularly swears he will leave Bangui and retire to his home in Kerfeunteun, in the Finistère department. But at 72, the restaurant owner is still here, year after year, shaking customers' hands, all the while single-handedly dealing with his small spirulina factory and a child nutrition center, where his "magic potion" is quite literally saving lives.

On his table, Freddy has spirulina in all its forms: powder, flakes, jars. His enthusiasm for the product seems to know no bounds. Freddy himself swallows a large coffee spoon of it every morning, and welcomes his guests to do the same. It's the secret, he says, to his own good health.

A life of adventure

Freddy and his restaurant, with its clientele of French expats, European soldiers and local ministers, are well known in Bangui. For passing journalists who stay in his guesthouse, or UN officials living there long term, the Relais de Chasse is a hub of information. Good tips and secrets are exchanged around the large central table, where Freddy doesn't hesitate to open a few bottles to loosen up conversations before offering his specialty as a dessert: a spirulina sorbet. Of course.

The big-mouthed, big-hearted owner is like a caricature of an adventurer. And he seems to know everything about the troubled history of the Central African Republic, which isn't surprising given all he's seen and lived through.

Freddy's journey started with two trips around the world on the Jeanne D’Arc, a school cruiser, in 1961. André Lemonnier, his civil name, discovered his taste for adventure there. After a career in the coast guard police, he joined the French embassy in Bangui as quartermaster, in 1978. It was the great era of Bokassa, diamonds and the large hunting expeditions with President Valery Giscard d'Estaing. Freddy still laughs about it.

A year later, he got angry with the ambassador, walked out, worked for a time in a coffee plantation and returned to Europe through the Sahara desert with a friend, stopping in villages along the way to teach the children basic knowledge … of judo!

Once he was back in France, he soon got bored. And so he returned to the Central African Republic, where he fulfilled his dream of opening a restaurant. Over the course of 30 years, corruption, coups and war interfered with business, forcing him several times to close shop and start over again. Eventually he opened Relais de Chasse, which he protected with arms when anti-Balaka Christian militias and armed ex-Seleka Muslim groups spread terror in Bangui.

Freddy at a local golf competition in 2010 â€" Photo: Bangui Golf Club

Fixing the formula

His fascination for spirulina began in 1991, when he met Dr. Jean Dupire, a general practitioner working for a local clinic. Dupire had just gotten hold of two large barrels of spirulina that were supposed to go to Zaire, which was at war, but ended up by accident in Bangui. Locals didn't know what to do with the barrels. But for the doctor, a nutrition specialist, they were a priceless treasure. He knew all about the virtues of this algae filled with proteins that also has most of the essential nutrients and lacks only Omega-3 to be complete.

Spirulina isn't a new discovery. The Aztecs are known to have consumed it. It has also been used in Chad by the Kanembu people, whose relatively good health, compared to that of neighboring ethnic groups, caught the attention of researchers.

Nowadays, a growing number of small NGOs are using spirulina as well to fight malnutrition in places like India, Madagascar and Niger. Why not in the Central African Republic, where malnutrition affects almost one in three children? The conditions are ideal, according to Dupire. "Spirulina needs temperatures between 25° and 35°C. It develops admirably in Africa. It can easily be produced locally," he says.

Now back in Paris, Dupire is still a relentless advocate of this algae. "It has as much protein as meat but without all the requirements of a herd of steer,” he says. The spirulina strains can reproduce naturally in a simple, regularly stirred and filtered freshwater basin. The next step is drying the spirulina and reducing it to flakes to consume it. Production costs are low.

To treat the unfed children and compensate for the lack of Omega-3, the doctor developed a "spirulina-fish" formula. With the help of a Japanese NGO, he founded the Nutrition Santé Bangui center, in a rural area of the capital. There, the children receive 5 grams of spirulina per day, mixed with two spoons of crushed sardines. "I would have liked to develop a fish farm so the center could be completely self-sufficient, but in this context it was too complicated," he explains. So it had to be canned sardines.

"We treat them all"

The results have been nothing short of spectacular. "In one month, a child suffering from severe malnutrition is back on his feet," says Dupine, who plans to expand the model by training doctors and producers.

But the project has also been beset by problems, especially with civil wars, which caused subsidies to run dry. Apart from a few thousand euros donated by a travel agency, funds are nonexistent. Production also took a hit when a shell destroyed the pylon that supplied the cooperative with electricity. With no power, it became impossible to dry the spirulina.

Even with all of his contacts, Freddy hasn't been able to restore the electricity. And so every day, they have to carry the kilos of wet spirulina into town, on foot, to dry it. Jérôme Saragba, the former head of the cooperative, takes care of this. Struck by a bullet in the neck during the clashes, this man is incredibly lucky. Every day, he walks 10 kilometers so children can receive their daily dose.

A few kilometers away, the nutrition center welcomes about 50 children each morning. All are examined, weighed, measured. It took hours for many to get here. Half of them suffer from malnutrition, ranging from moderate to severe. "We are only supposed to accept moderate cases, but as there isn't really any alternative, we treat them all," Dr. Félicienne Omabo explains. For many of them, rickets is combined with other illnesses too.

UNICEF does provide a few drugs, antibiotics and antimalarials. But that's it. Impressively, the children swallow every last drop of their potion. Last year, the center treated 395 children. It's both a lot and very little.

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"The Truest Hypocrisy" - The Russia-NATO Clash Seen From Moscow

Russia has decided to cut off relations with the Western military alliance. But Moscow says it was NATO who really wanted the break based on its own internal rationale.

NATO chief Stoltenberg and Russian Foregin Minister Lavrov

Russian Foreign Ministry/TASS via ZUMA
Pavel Tarasenko and Sergei Strokan

MOSCOW — The Russian Foreign Ministry's announcement that the country's permanent representation to NATO would be shut down for an indefinite period is a major development. But from Moscow's viewpoint, there was little alternative.

These measures were taken in response to the decision of NATO on Oct. 6 to cut the number of personnel allowed in the Russian mission to the Western alliance by half. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the removal of accreditations was from eight employees of the Russian mission to NATO who were identified as undeclared employees of Russian intelligence." We have seen an increase in Russian malicious activity for some time now," Stoltenberg said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry called NATO's expulsion of Russian personnel a "ridiculous stunt," and Stoltenberg's words "the truest hypocrisy."

In announcing the complete shutdown in diplomacy between Moscow and NATO, the Russian Foreign Ministry added: "The 'Russian threat' is being hyped in strengthen the alliance's internal unity and create the appearance of its 'relevance' in modern geopolitical conditions."

The number of Russian diplomatic missions in Brussels has been reduced twice unilaterally by NATO in 2015 and 2018 - after the alliance's decision of April 1, 2014 to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation between Russia and NATO in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea. Diplomats' access to the alliance headquarters and communications with its international secretariat was restricted, military contacts have frozen.

Yet the new closure of all diplomatic contacts is a perilous new low. Kommersant sources said that the changes will affect the military liaison mission of the North Atlantic alliance in Moscow, aimed at promoting the expansion of the dialogue between Russia and NATO. However, in recent years there has been no de facto cooperation. And now, as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has announced, the activities of the military liaison mission will be suspended. The accreditation of its personnel will be canceled on November 1.

NATO told RIA Novosti news service on Monday that it regretted Moscow's move. Meanwhile, among Western countries, Germany was the first to respond. "It would complicate the already difficult situation in which we are now and prolong the "ice age," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters.

"Lavrov said on Monday, commenting on the present and future of relations between Moscow and the North Atlantic Alliance, "If this is the case, then we see no great need to continue pretending that any changes will be possible in the foreseeable future because NATO has already announced that such changes are impossible.

The suspension of activities of the Russian Permanent Mission to NATO, as well as the military liaison and information mission in Russia, means that Moscow and Brussels have decided to "draw a final line under the partnership relations of previous decades," explained Andrei Kortunov, director-general of the Russian Council on Foreign Affairs, "These relations began to form in the 1990s, opening channels for cooperation between the sides … but they have continued to steadily deteriorate over recent years."

Kortunov believes the current rupture was promoted by Brussels. "A new strategy for NATO is being prepared, which will be adopted at the next summit of the alliance, and the previous partnership with Russia does not fit into its concept anymore."

The existence and expansion of NATO after the end of the Cold War was the main reason for the destruction of the whole complex of relations between Russia and the West. Today, Russia is paying particular attention to marking red lines related to the further steps of Ukraine's integration into NATO. Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov previously stated this, warning that in response to the alliance's activity in the Ukrainian direction, Moscow would take "active steps" to ensure its security.

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