SLICE: I ate dirt for seven years

No one made me do it, and my family was in the dark all those years that I was enslaved by clay, even when it was my nightly midnight snack. 

It started with a small piece of chalk. I was a school prefect in grade seven and this came with duties such as arriving in class before everyone to make sure everything was ready for lessons.

One morning while busy with my class leader chores, I was suddenly tempted to have a bite of chalk and that is exactly what I did, which, to my surprise, was oddly satisfying. From that point on, I developed the habit of consuming chalk. 

From chalk, I soon found myself tempted to try another substance: soil, and the temptation mainly came from the smell of it after rain. The soil did wonders to my taste buds as well, tasting like something that I had been craving for a long time. Two years in, and now in high school, I was completely addicted to consuming clay, be it red, grey, white or brown, and regularly bought it from street vendors.

After a while, a plastic bag of roughly 40 grams of clay would not last me a week. So, I would use my weekly R200 pocket money to buy the R5-packets of clay in bulk. Soon this was not enough, and I began experimenting with various clays be it from the garden or the side of the street.

All of this was done behind closed doors because I was petrified of my parents’ reaction. Therefore, I made sure to always be alone in my room when I consumed clay. To keep the clay a secret from my parents for many years, I always kept my clay in a box where we stored old shoes because it was hardly checked. 

I reached a point where my addiction to clay became essential for me to function as a human being. I would constantly ask teachers to excuse me from class so I could go and secretly nibble on clay. I also spent a lot of time thinking about clay in class and it was destructive. I became so reliant on it that I started keeping it under my pillow, as a midnight snack. 

After high school, I took a gap year as I did not know what I wanted to study. This made me feel as if my life was stagnant, that I had no life while my peers were progressing. I resorted to clay more to relieve the stress. I ate clay to help me fall asleep, and I would wake up in the middle of the night to eat it. I simply could not live without it. 

My wakeup call started with severe constipation which led to excessive bleeding, and my skin breaking out and getting pale. There were days where even standing for a few minutes was difficult because of the pain. 

I had to go to the doctor, to whom I confessed about my addiction to clay. It turned out that I had consumed clay that had parasites and bacteria, which led to pain in the abdomen. From the doctor I found out that I was suffering from iron deficiency anaemia, and this was what made me crave clay.

According to the South African Medical Journal, the condition I was suffering from, geophagia, is the “intentional ingestion of soil/sand, clay blocks and mud…[because of] religious, cultural, nutritional and medicinal practices, famine, perceived enhancement of personal appearance, pregnancy-related cravings, and enjoyment of the taste, texture or smell of the substance consumed”.

Science Daily reported in 2017 that “up to 80% of people in Africa, especially women, regularly eat clayey soil”. One of the lead investigators, medical anthropologist Ruth Kutalek, wrote that, “These people often eat clay as a snack between meals and report that they could not do without it.”

Geophagia is not new as scientific research has found evidence of humans using clay for healing purposes as early as 2500BC. It is a form of pica, “a condition that mostly affects pregnant people and children. People with it feel compelled to eat non-food items.” Other common pica cravings include pebbles, ash, cloth, paper, chalk, hair, soap and faeces.

I am overjoyed that I am completely over the addiction, because I no longer get cravings. I am not tempted to eat clay even when I see it. My doctor prescribed iron supplements and encouraged me to eat food that is high in iron such as spinach and liver. 

I have been clean for five years now and I am able to freely talk about it now because it is all in the past. People get shocked, though, to learn that I was enslaved by clay at such a young age. 

FEATURED IMAGE:  Boitumelo Masalesa. Photo: File