In 1999, a strange incident happened at Tlhalogang Community Junior Secondary School in Borolong near Francistown.
Learners reported that their classmates were complaining of stiff necks and general unease. The affected students were all mysteriously nodding their heads repeatedly. As authorities and parents became aware of the mystery, many believed witchcraft or demonic forces were at play.
“There was a belief that the children had been attacked by demonic forces or that something of a similar nature was afflicting them,” says an official who was close to the matter at the time.
“Few thought it could be anything else.” By the time the penny dropped, 90 children had been affected and diagnosed with food poisoning. Over the years, the public education sector has been particularly susceptible to food poisoning, due to the large quantities of supplies involved, inherent weaknesses in the chain from producer to supplier to school and the lack of qualified cooks.
“Sometimes the suppliers are poor and deliver substandard food,” says our source.
“However, many times the cooks are illiterate, being drawn from nearby villages or recruited by virtue of being vocal in the Parent Teachers’ Association.
“At Tlhalogang, the cooks did not handle the food well and were illiterate. The children reported that their classmates were unwell and soon the illness was everywhere.”
According to a report by the Food Control Unit, in 1999, 179 students at Mannathoko CJSS were struck by abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea while 40 at the University of Botswana were afflicted with similar symptoms.
In 1999 alone, 355 incidents of food poisoning were recorded, including three cases of abdominal pain from eating fried chicken reported at a fast food outlet in Gaborone.
Between 2000 and 2004 the Food Control Unit recorded a litany of food poisoning cases across the country including:
289 cases at Maiphitshwane Primary after consumption of cooked beans in 2000 90 inmates with abdominal pain and diarrhoea in 2000 18 cases of hallucination after consumption of contaminated sorghum meal in Bobirwa in 2001
More than 60 cases of abdominal pains and diarrhoea at Naledi Senior Secondary in 2002
18 cases of vomiting, dizziness and uncoordinated movement at Makobo Primary after eating sorghum cooked with borehole water in 2002 200 cases of diarrhoea, fever and vomiting at a day care centre in Palapye in 2002
In between these cases are incidents involving fast food outlets and supermarkets such as four cases reported at a Gaborone restaurant where customers suffered heart palpitations and severe rash after consuming tuna in 2000.
In the same year, a customer at a Gaborone supermarket experienced burning pain in the stomach up to the throat immediately after eating a muffin, while another experienced abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting after eating a cake.
Food Control Unit officers found hairs and pieces of cloth in packed lunches sold at supermarkets, visible dirt in bottled soft drinks, visible moulds in buns and bread amongst others.
At time of compiling the report, Innocent Tshekiso of Food Control Unit, noted that some of the factors around poor food safety included importation and sale of expired or unlabelled food products, booming of powdered or concentrated drinks and even scavenging from dumpsites for resale to the public.
In addition, he found that there was generally poor reporting of food safety issues by customers and this in turn made it difficult for the Unit to adequately investigate and trace contaminants, as officers were almost always late to the scene of the ‘crime’.