Are individuals and communities in Africa oblivious to the reality that being overweight and obese are no longer limited to high income countries in the West?
Decades back, the concern for Africa was centered on food insecurity and the resultant underweight and stunting, especially among children. Tables have turned around, currently more deaths worldwide are linked to overweight and obesity, and Africa has followed the new trend.
Overweight and obesity are one form of malnutrition with health-related outcomes in the form of increased Cardiovascular (heart disease and stroke), Hypertension (blood pressure), Type 2 diabetes, and some cancers.
There have been questions, people wanting to understand why many families in Africa are abandoning their indigenous foods for unfamiliar and over-processed food items. The other question is on the limited awareness creation on the dangers of being overweight.
I set out to understand the new phenomena and realized that part of the answer is hidden in traditional social-cultural values around food, body weight and well being. What is the general perception on body weight, and how do the views blind or open our eyes to the severity of being overweight? Below are explanatory details in relation to healthy babies, beautiful brides and wealthy men
In many indigenous African communities, the health and well-being of an individual was measured using physical attributes.
The growth of infants and children was monitored through the use of a string or band tied on the wrist, thigh, neck or waist. The string was checked at specific intervals and changed once it was too tight for the baby; an indicator that the baby was growing well, as expected. There was bound to be panic if an infant or child did not outgrow their string within acceptable time.
Whenever girls were old enough for marriage, it was normal for them to be put through a fattening program. The program involved being fed a special diet and involvement in less strenuous physical activities. The hidden objective was to make the prospective mother nutritionally competent and the bride-to-be attractive to her husband.
The taller and rounder a daughter was, the more praise the mother, parents and clan received.
Over time, the fattening exercise became a competitive process, to the extent that certain families and clans were renowned for their expertise in the supply of beautiful brides.
Therefore, not being of a certain body weight implied poor health or leading a stressful life. To date, if a person loses weight within a short period; there sure will be murmurs, asking what the person could be suffering from. There were problems for a wife who gained body weight while her husband did not, willingly or unwillingly.
The mark of beauty did not escape the male part of society. Mothers-in-laws were liked or disliked based on comments they made about their sons after marriage. Wives were known to score high points if their mother-in-law talked of how her son had added weight since marriage. The message was loaded; implying that the girl was a good cook and provided proper care to her husband.
A bulging stomach among men has remained an indicator of having power and wealth, able to afford enough food to feed one’s family and self. Over time, many men have not thought twice about being overweight, after all it has been a physical indicator of wealth and success in life!
Touched? Use the space below to share narratives that exist within your community around body weight and well-being? What strategies can be used to create awareness on relations between food choices and being overweight, a precursor to poor health?
Revised. First published, September 22nd 2016