has one of the shortest life expectancies in the world.
journal (part one)
only come out at night
In September, when we last heard from adventuring
educator and three-time Guinness World Record holder Dan Buettner,
he had just provided us with an eight-part crash course on the ins
and outs of the Galápagos
Islands. Since then, his research on aging has appeared as a
cover story in National Geographic and his work continues in Africa
this year under the name of Blue
Zones. Here's his latest report:
don't care what anyone says. There are creatures that come
out at night and kill children. And I've just seen one.
As part of a worldwide quest for secrets on how to live a long,
healthy life, I have come to Ghana, a tiny country in West Africa.
Ghana is about the size of Oregon. Forests blanket much of the south
where, in a few protected areas, lions and elephants still roam.
Northern Ghana is dryer and hotter, and the Savannah dominates the
landscape. At the moment, seasonal winds carry air so thick with
Saharan sands that the sun looks like a bright smudge in a milky
sky. If you take a long breath, you can feel the grit grinding between
Ghana has gold. Lots of it. That is what first caught the attention
of the outside world. The Portuguese first arrived in Ghana in 1471
and, over the next three centuries, exported tons of the precious
metal to Europe. Around 1665, slaves began to replace gold as the
main export. An estimated 20 million human slaves were traded through
this part of Africa and sent toward the United States in ships.
If you're African American, there is a good chance your ancestors
lived, or at least passed through, here.
kills more than two million kids a year, mostly in Africa.
Today, we can thank Ghana for chocolate. Over half the world's
cacao production comes out of Ghana and the neighboring Ivory Coast.
In addition to exporting cacao, Ghanaians still mine gold and fish.
There are, of course, doctors, lawyers, writers and soccer stars,
too, but most people here are simple farmers, growing much of their
own food. On average, Ghanaians only earn $400 per year. Not only
do people in Ghana make little money, they tend to live short lives.
The average life expectancy in Ghana is only 57 years, 21 years
shorter than the U.S. average. You might wonder why Blue Zones has
come to Ghana, a place where life is so short. I am here because
in order to fully understand how populations can have a higher life
expectancy, we must also understand what ends life prematurely.
Ghanaians live in a country with one of the shortest life expectancies
in the world. Why? Are they doing something wrong? Do they have
bad genes? Do they eat too many Big Macs? Well, as unlikely as it
sounds, creatures in the night are very much to blame.
At the moment I'm staying just outside of the capital city, Accra,
on an Atlantic beach called Labadi. It's 11 p.m., and the air outside
my room is still hot and soupy with humidity. The mechanical whine
of a thousand African cicadas is so loud it drowns out even the
roar of the waves crashing on the beach. To my left there's a dark,
still lagoon flanked by rioting mangrove trees. In there lurk the
kid-killers, the creatures that come out at night and feed on human
These creatures are called Anopheles mosquitoes and they hatch
from eggs close to the ground, making it easy to seek their victims.
When they bite, they inject a single-celled organism called a protozoan
into the blood that invades red blood cells. There, the organism
reproduces many times over until the red blood cell explodes, releasing
thousands more protozoa to invade the entire body. This is how you
I once got malaria while on an expedition in Central America.
It began innocently enough. I started feeling tired and achy with
a slight headache. Within a day, the headache became intense. It
felt like there was a little man in my head hammering at the back
of my eyeballs. My temperature soared to 104 degrees. One minute
I'd be sweating so profusely that it would dribble off of me; a
few minutes later I'd be curled up in a ball with teeth-chattering
My eyes turned yellow (jaundice is a sign that the protozoa are
destroying your liver cells) and I had zero energy. It took all
of my strength to get out of my hammock once a day to draw a bucket
of well water and pour it over my head, then stagger back to my
hammock. I recovered after two weeks, but in bad cases (there are
four types), untreated malaria can proceed to shock, lung and kidney
failure, coma and death.
Today, I had the chance to ask Assistant Minister of Tourism Freddy
Ayam about malaria.
"I get it every month," he chuckled. "It's like
getting a cold." But when I asked about malaria and children,
he got very serious and admitted that malaria kills more children
here than anything else. Indeed, the Center for Disease Control
estimates that 280 million cases of malaria occur every year, killing
around two million children, mostly in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
So, there really are creatures in the night that kill. But, then
again, the mosquito in my room that inspired this article is now
but a smudge on the wall. I squashed it with a newspaper.
return next month for Dan's next journal