Tag: weight loss

Ghana: Where my body is everybody’s business

I’m the biggest I have been in five years, almost back full circle to the size I was six years ago. I managed to drop from a UK size 16 to a UK size 12 but now all my size 14 clothes fit a little too snugly. I suspect I’m right back to being a size 16 but I can’t be sure because I haven’t bought any new clothes. I’ve merely stopped wearing the clothes that feel too tight and choose only those items that were once loose on my body.

It’s horrible being overweight in Ghana. Everybody will readily tell you how obolo (fat) you’ve become. Aunties will screech, “Ei. W pai o!” (You’re bursting at the seams!) even though they themselves are spilling over their kaftans and are probably twice your size. Once when I was working out with the office trainer, my manager exclaimed, “Ei Nana. Look how fat the back of your neck has become.” “That’s why I’m working out,” I muttered under my breath. She had the nerve to comment on my body when she’s at least a size and a half bigger than I am. Maybe it’s because she has children – women with children get a pass, I think. But from what my friends with children say, that pass doesn’t last very long.

Many years ago, before the white man came to the Gold Coast, it was a good thing to be fat. Fat women were treasured. Being fat was a sign of prosperity and wealth. Times have indeed changed. The last time I visited my farming village, Kwadarko, in the eastern region of Ghana, one of the women who lives in the community said to me, “Ei. You have become fat. She must’ve seen the reaction on my face because she swiftly added, “But it really suits you.” So even in a small farming village of less than 100 people, 50% of whom I’m related to, it’s not a good thing to be big.

I’ve always had issues with my weight. I was a skinny child, mainly due to the asthma that frequently racked my body. In secondary school I developed breasts really quickly and generally felt uncomfortable with my body. In sixth form, my friend Lauren and I would wake up early, jog around the football field, and do countless sit-ups in an effort to control our weight. When I look back at photos from that time I realise how “normal” my body was. I definitely wasn’t overweight as a child or teenager.

The weight gain happened in my early adult years when I moved from Ghana to London. I was initially unhappy there, living with relatives but not really feeling at home. I got a job at Pizza Hut, and was entitled to a free meal every shift I worked. Another perk was a 50% staff discount on products sold by Pizza Hut, including Häagen-Dazs ice cream. That was when I began to gain weight. Food became my emotional crutch. When I eventually rented a flat with a friend, I had crept from a size 10 to a size 12. She was a size 8 and proud of her body, perhaps too proud. She’d walk around our flat naked and tease me about my weight gain. We stopped doing the weekly grocery shopping together after she complained, “You’re eating us out of house and home.”

“I start diets all the time and I’m sick of them.” (sxc.hu)

Years later, I got married to a (slim) man. He was one of those people who sometimes forgets to eat but I have never forgotten a meal in my life. When we began having problems in our marriage, he kept losing weight and I kept gaining it. I remember him saying, “You don’t even care. Look how much weight you’re gaining while I keep getting skinnier.” The fact that he is now my ex-husband has nothing to do with the different ways in which we dealt with emotional issues.

The worst bit about my weight battle is that I know being fat is a feminist issue. I recognise that women are fed images of ultra-skinny models, actresses and other unattainable ideals via television screens, magazines and billboards. I know that I am not as fat as I feel. When I was at my skinniest I didn’t automatically feel happy, even though I had assumed that being able to buy size 10 clothes would have brought me automatic joy.

I know the roots of my over-eating are emotional. When I’m happy, I celebrate with a posh dinner with a friend. When I’m down, I take refuge in a large bar of chocolate. I recognise that I should drink water, eat almonds instead of chocolate, drink less wine. I start diets all the time and I’m sick of them. Why can’t I be one of the metabolically blessed who can indulge as much as they want without picking up weight? I watch my skinny friends when we go out for meals. The break off half a roll from the bread basket; I keep dipping into it. They order baked fish with a side of veggies; I choose the rich grouper provençal (fish in creamy sauce). I know I should but I just can’t seem to imitate them.

Surely I’m not the only woman who feels this way; who hates being called fat; who worries, perhaps unnecessarily, about what the scale tells her. I’m not the only woman who gets quizzed about her weight as if her body is public property. My friends tell me that in Freetown, Sierra Leone, you could be chilling at Lumley Beach only for a passing driver to stick his head out of his car and yell, “You bomp!” You could be in a boardroom in Lagos and be called “orobo“. Stroll down Electric Avenue in Nairobi and you may overhear someone say, “Eno ne momo.”

What’s this obsession with fat shaming?

Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah works as a communications specialist at the African Women’s Development Fund, is co-owner of MAKSI Clothing and curates Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women, a highly acclaimed and widely read blog on African women and sexuality. 

Dancing my weight away in West Africa

The year is 1985 and somewhere in the United States, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie and a posse of their pop star chums huddle into a studio to sing for Africa’s supper.The song is the heart-stirring We Are the World.

Recorded to raise funds to aid citizens of a drought- and poverty stricken Ethiopia, the charity song du jour was accompanied by pictures of desperate-looking African others and ash-skinned children with torsos as thin as spaghetti, very large heads and bones you could count one by one. These were not just people in need of a meal; they were so starved they barely had the strength to breathe, let alone muster the strength to wave away the flies that congregated on their mouths.

There was famine in Africa. So God bless the pop stars.

More than 20 years later those images seem to have raised more ignorance than consciousness. Because, years later, people still perceive Africa as the starving continent. So much so that pop tart Mariah Carey once said she wants to visit Africa, if only for the circumstantial dieting that would be bound to succeed.

Meanwhile, the news that I was planning to travel to West Africa was met with concern by family and friends that I would be afflicted with all sorts of diseases or even starve, though some in my circle seemed to feel that it would help me to shed the excess weight I have carried all my life.

Indeed, after spending a year and five months in West Africa, I am 40kg lighter. But it was not from starvation.

On the contrary, West Africa turned out to be the land of plenty food. There is food around the clock here: from the street chow standard of rice and meat sauce to kebabs, braai meat, fried fish, chips and plantain. The region has so much food, I began to feel as though I was starring in Supersize Me: West Africa.

In Senegal I piled on the lard by way of schwarmas and the nation’s beloved and addictive rice and fish dish, tcheip djenne.

Mali has as many braai and roastmeat outlets as it does mosques. And here, people will chase you down the street to invite you over for lunch. Though polite, Malians do not take no for an answer. They also do not accept that you have had enough to eat unless they see you flatten the mountain of food they put in front on you.

In Burkina Faso tasteless local food forced me into a staple of fried chicken and chips.

This was a mere five weeks into my trip and already I was starting to swell up.

Then came Ghana with its jollof rice, a rice-and-bean dish called waatchi, fried rice and much more that I was only too happy to sample.

Jollof rice served with plantain and meat. (Rosalyn Davis/Flickr)

On to Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire. It is said West Africans spend a whack of their money on clothes and food. Ivorians are over the top in this regard with Abidjan being Frenchspeaking West Africa’s capital of food, booze and partying. Here, everyone who sells food does it around the clock. And it is not just your standard kebabs and sandwiches.

Some nightclubs have fully fledged outdoor restaurants. And if a plate of grilled chicken and attieke (cassava) are not your thing, take a few steps on to the streets and you can have even more of food you would never associate with a post-clubbing binge, like pork stew.

I was now six months into my trip. My French was starting to pick up. So I could at last understand what Salif Keita was saying in his song Africa. The song is a declaration of the good times that are rolling in our continent, which he reiterates by stating “manje beaucoup” (“eat lots”). He then has a verse in which he lists some of West Africa’s culinary delights, including tcheip, fufu, alloko, yassa, peanut-butter stew and attieke, which also doubles as a breakfast staple served with fried fish, raw chilli and a splash of oil.

Spicy West African peanut stew. (leshoward/Flickr)

I was in trouble.

I even started wishing that there was some truth in the prevailing stereotype of Africa being the land of starvation.

I had to act. This journey started in April 2009. The results have convinced me that anyone with lots of lard to push and some cash to spare should indeed head to West Africa.

The region has hundreds of robust traditional dances and I started to learn them on a rooftop in Bamako.

Thinking I was alone in fighting my lard, I was wonderfully surprised when a teenage girl walked up to me to offer her services as a “jogging partner”.

There is also zero privacy here. So my afternoon dance sessions were a daily spectacle for the neighbourhood, which made people offer tips and encouragement at every turn.

Random strangers in Guinea, Conakry, Ghana, Togo and Benin, where I was scattering my fat, had advice to offer. The region is obsessed with fitness. Noting a fat person attacking her lard, people would invite me to play beach soccer, join their troupe for an afternoon, tell me where to find fresh produce and offer me their kitchens so I could cook my own food.

They turned into a colony of personal trainers and gatekeepers I had to account to. Especially the children. They demanded that I spend many hours chasing after them or teaching them dance routines that they already knew better than me.

I left South Africa open to the journeys that I knew would come out of the act of booking my ticket out of the country. Yet losing weight was far from my mind. And it struck me, as the kilos started peeling off, that Africa is indeed the land of clichés.

The most enduring are of Africans as loving, humane and selfless.

My waist is a case in point.

Lerato Mogoatlhe is a South African journalist travelling around the continent. This post was first published in the M&G newspaper.