Africa’s newest silent killer: obesity

Africa’s newest silent killer: obesity

“Silent killers” in Africa are usually malaria, malnutrition, river blindness, HIV/AIDs…and the list goes on. But recent reports suggest it might be time to add one more, and it’s one you might not expect: obesity.


“A third of women in urban Kampala and a quarter of the women in more rural central and southwestern Uganda are overweight or obese, according to 2007 government statistics. It is a major paradox since 50 percent of children in southwestern Uganda are malnourished,” Derrick Z. Jackson writes in a Boston Globe op-ed.

This does not come as a surprise to me. Go to the prominent markets in cities, or take a drive through the richer neighborhoods in Nigeria, Cameroon, or even Liberia for that matter, and obesity is visible — if not as prevelant as in the United States, for example. There are no real reliable statistics on obesity in Africa yet (check out how nearly the whole continent lacks data here) but there is a general consensus that the epidemic is growing — at least among the wealthier. 

In my experience, “fatness” is not bemoaned much in the African countries I’ve visited… In fact, it’s applauded. I’ll never forget a church service I observed in which a preacher asked attendees to greet their neighbor joyously: “Today is your day of fatness!”

Fatness, in this context, means more than just physique. It’s associated with wealth of all sorts. In a continent struck by poverty, being big in all things — wallet, house, and belt size — is a sign of success. I was often told to gain weight, and complimented on days when I apparently looked “bigger.” It’s an understandable mentality when poverty is all around; when one escapes such a fate, seeking all things non-poor is a prized goal. What is harder to justify is the way that the “big man” concept fits into corruption as well. Opportunities to get rich are often taken; and big men become exactly that in all senses of the word. 

Obviously, this is a small subset, and certainly there are other reasons for obesity on the rise. (It doesn’t help that African food is often rich — for example in Sierra Leone: rice, palm oil, cassava, palm oil, meat, and more palm-oil fried plantains — so workers moving from the fields to desk jobs are likely to take in more calories than a sedentary lifestyle allows). 

But if I’m right, or if being big remains a big goal, then Africa’s slow rise out of poverty could bring with it a rise of obesity. But perhaps being big won’t be so special anymore — and another fashion will fill its place. 

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