By Heide Serwaa Sintim (Level 300 student – Ghana Institute of Journalism)
Over the years, the usage of clay has been a key aspect of African culture and arts. It has been known to be used to mould ceramics and other artefacts. Africa is said to have a variety of clay notable ‘ferricrete’, ‘koffieklip’, bentonite. All these forms of clays serve different purposes in various African countries.
The bentonite clay traditionally known as ‘Ayilo’ or ‘shilee’ in Ghana is one of Ghana’s locally baked clays cherished among some pregnant women and children. Just as most people crave sweet and savoury foods during pregnancies, some crave these edible clay since it has a unique and pleasing smell.
Shilee can mostly be found in the Volta and Northern regions of Ghana. In these areas, the clay is broken into smaller pieces and pounded in a mortar. It is then soaked for an hour, mushed and mixed to form a paste. In a case where, the paste contains a lot of water, more clay is added. This is done to form the right texture. It is then moulded into shapes and baked to reduce the moisture content and give it a nice aroma. The end result of this entire process is referred to as the shilee. In some parts of Ghana, the bentonite is broken into pieces after it has been dug, then roasted.
Although shilee has a lot of benefits, the dangers involved in the consumption of this clay outweigh the positives. Anything taken, even in smaller quantities over a period of time can cause harm to the human body, shilee is no exception. Shilee, when taken in large quantities over time can cause constipation, vomiting, food and lead poisoning, intestinal blockages and in severe cases death. This is because it contains micro-organisms that maybe harmful to the human body. Also, clay in itself should not be consumed under any circumstance.
In spite of all the dangers involved, some Akans view shilee as their timeless beauty secret. As explained by some, shilee can be used to treat blackheads, acnes and used as a face mask to remove toxins. Some say it helps to keep their skin soft and glowing throughout the seasons. Through this, it is clearly seen that the external use of shilee is more useful and healthier than the internal use.
The internal use of shilee by pregnant women is claimed to cure morning sickness and other pregnancy related issues. Some people believe that some women have actually deluded themselves that it cures pregnancy related issues and stomach issues while it does not. It is also believed by some that, the consumption of shilee by pregnant women is mostly out of peer or societal pressure.
Eating of shilee has become accepted as part of Ghanaian culture but it should not be. This eating disorder, has been overlooked even as it causes harm because of Ghanaian tradition. In some Ghanaian communities, people who advise against the consumption of shilee are often ignored by most of the consumers within the community. This is as a result of how deeply rooted this habit is. Our negligence as a society to educate the people about the effects of this is doing more than just curbing cravings.
In some homes, mothers advise their daughters to consume more shilee during pregnancies as shilee might give the unborn child smooth skin. The habit of consuming shilee by pregnant woman and people in general has been linked to pica. This form of pica is referred to as Geophagia.
According to research, eating dirt as part of a cultural practice, or because other people in your family or community also eat dirt, differs from pica. This is certainly true but in a case where a person consistently craves non-food items such as shilee without any reasonable explanation that person might be suffering from pica, an eating disorder. This can sometimes to viewed as a mental disorder that is characterized by abnormal eating behaviours or patterns that affects the person’s physical or mental health if not treated early on.
Research states that doctors have associated eating shilee with low levels of iron. Some pregnant women substitute their food supplements with shilee since it is believed to contain high levels of iron. This practice is actually dangerous to their health and can lead to severe implications during birth.
Again, research said, “Although geophagia may not begin as a mental health concern, over time, eating dirt could come to resemble an addiction. Some people report finding it difficult to stop, even after they start having health problems associated with eating dirt.” Geophagia can happen to anyone, men or women, pregnant or not.
The shilee business is one that is booming in most parts of Ghana especially Anfoega this town is known to be the leading producers of shilee in Ghana. Some Ghanaians drive miles just to buy it in bulk. Also, it has been noticed that most producers of the shilee are not really aware of the dangers associated with the consuming with it. Most producers are actually into the business since selling these edible clay is their way of making ends meet and supporting their family. Vending shilee has become a huge business in Ghana by some of the market women and even those in the provision shops since it has no expiry date.
In the previous days, hardly will one pass by a provision store and would not find shilee well packaged in transparent bowls attracting buyers. But in recent times, some producers have decided to add a modern touch to it by packing them in nice bags rather than placing them in the usual large bowls.
The act of craving shilee can sometimes disappear after pregnancy or after a child reaches a certain stage. It is often advised by Doctors that people with the addiction of eating shilee should eat foods similar in texture or taste to help them get rid of that habit. In case where that does not work, they are often advised to seek counseling since it could be a deeply rooted mental disorder. Shilee can be addictive and it is very important to get educated on the effects it has in the human body rather than following certain cultural practices blindly. Shilee should not be used for internal purposes because it does more harm than good.