Magazine article The Spectator

Forced to Be Fat

Magazine article The Spectator

Forced to Be Fat

Article excerpt

Mauritania

Strange place. And the strangest of missions. While the UN warns of famine, I am driving through the Sahara in search of fat ladies. I meet World Vision, a Christian relief agency, on the road and ask their project chief if she's seen any.

'Er, I don't think so, ' she says with a withering look. 'We're in a stage three emergency here; that's one step away from famine.' Locusts have devoured harvests, rains have failed and as investigations go, this one feels absurd. Yet female obesity, not starvation, is what's killing the women of Mauritania.

A doctor in the town of Kifa examines a woman in her thirties weighing in at 18 stone. 'Most of the women here are obese, ' he says. 'First they become less fertile. Then they get gallstones in their twenties, arthritis, diabetes and heart disease in their thirties and forties. By 50 and 60, if they survive that long, they can no longer walk. They are completely handicapped. They can do nothing.' He wraps the woman's arm in a giant bloodpressure sleeve. It is 160 over 120.

A younger woman in the obstetrics ward smiles in protest when Dr Sid Ahmed Ould Megeya, Mauritania's surgeon general, explains that she has just lost her fourth consecutive baby in childbirth because of obesity. 'I'm not fat, ' she says. 'I'm just swollen because of heart disease.' He smiles back and shakes his head.

'You won't see the really severe cases, ' he tells me. 'They cannot get on to a camel or into a car. I have had women carried in on a blanket and rolled along the floor into my consulting room.' What has brought this on? Not the junk foods that have fattened Westerners, though they are on their way and will compound the problem once Mauritania's off-shore oil receipts start flowing this December. Here chronic obesity starts with the tradition of gavage -- the force-feeding of girls from seven years old.

'I was force-fed as a child, ' one woman tells me. 'We all were. We thought it was good, that we would marry well. Now fashions have changed.' Why do they do it? Force-feeding in this highly stratified, tribal, Islamic society comes from a mixture of cultural legacies which have conspired to fatten, immobilise and disable the women of Mauritania's ruling tribes, the White Moors.

This is a country the size of France with fewer than three million people. Mostly desert, it's where the Arabs once came to trade in the region's most lucrative commodity: African slaves. Long after the rest of the world had banned the trade, Mauritania's White Moors refused to give it up. It's now been officially abolished at least three times, the last in 1980. Old habits die hard and although the word 'slavery' is now taboo, little black housemaids still grace many homes. For the women of the ruling tribes, to be fat is still a sign of being rich enough to be indolent and own slaves.

Government health campaigns haven't reached the desert. The men tell me that 'in matters of love, of course bigger is better'.

'Who likes a small mattress?' they ask, confusing me. Do they sleep on their wives?

Some whispered admissions and raucous laughter reveal another reason. The vagina is tighter in a fat woman than a thin one, they are saying. This makes everyone merry.

There's a logic to it. It's a society of camel breeders, so stocking up in times of plenty seems efficient. But add a little conservative Islam, which confines women to the home, plus the indolence that marks out the slavetraders from the traded, and you have a problem. …

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