Shortly after moving here both Seb and I started dropping a lot of weight. I was playing tennis several times a week, we were both on our feet much more than before, and we were quickly being weaned of our fast-food lunch and fancy-restaurant dinner habits. Oh, and the occasional bout of exotic-bacteria-driven diarrhea didn’t hurt, either. Moving to Africa is kind of like going off to college, except here it’s the anti-freshman-15.
But then, a few months later, I stopped playing tennis. I started finding my way around the grocery store aisles in Lubumbashi, discovering where to get the best butter, cheese, and cream. I learned how to bake bread. The pounds weren’t coming off anymore, and I may have even reversed course, but… whatever. I grumbled if Seb suggested a beach vacation but otherwise kind of denied to myself it was happening.
Then one day I went to see Seb in his office and stopped by his secretary’s desk. I hadn’t seen her for about a month. Her English was far better than my French, so she greeted me in English and then continued: “Wow, you’re getting really big!” She was looking at my upper torso and placing her hands wide apart as she said this. Despite the fact that her gestures matched her words perfectly, I thought to myself surely we have an error in translation here; she didn’t really mean to say that. So I asked her to repeat. This time she changed her phrase and dammit if she didn’t say it perfectly as well: “Yes, you must be eating a lot!”
I was stunned. I think I mumbled something along the lines of “Hmm, maybe…” and excused myself. I went on to see Seb and told him about this strange conversation. He laughed and said he would talk to her, to ask her in French what she really meant to say. He later reported that he had barely started to say, “So, you saw my wife earlier…” when she happily served up her observations about my weight gain, kindly specifying my upper arms.
A few days later a gal who cleans the floors in his office asked Seb about me, if I was doing well. She said she had also seen me walk by that day and mentioned that I appeared to be growing. Seb said she was using the same hands-wide-apart gesture and smiling as she said this.
I wish I could recall exactly what I had been wearing that day so I could burn it and never wear it again.
After getting over the shock of these pronouncements, I had to acknowledge that these ladies were right. We’re probably only talking about a couple of pounds here, but astute observers would notice such a thing. Like my English students who always notice if I come home from a vacation abroad with a new iPhone or computer peripheral, people here also pay attention to who’s eating well or not. In Ethiopia, for example, the traditional way of saying “hello” is to ask if you’ve eaten injera today. (Injera is a fermented type of flatbread, the staple of their diet.)
In many parts of Africa, the bigger the better. And not just the junk in the trunk (highly prized, for sure), but overall weight, too. Growing in girth is a sign of wealth, health, and prosperity. To be heavy means you’re eating well. The opposite means you are poor, or worse, sick.
Proof: Fast-forward a couple years from this incident to present-day. I’ve been steadily losing weight again since January, thanks to the influence of certain vegetarian, vegan, and yoga-practicing friends & neighbors in our lives. This week I gave Viviane a pile of my old clothes and tried to explain why. She looked away from me while I was speaking, sullen and quiet. I figured I was messing up my French so tried three different ways to tell her these clothes were too big for me. Finally she looked me in the eye and said, with grave concern, “Vous êtes malade?” (You are sick?)
So there’s a cross-cultural tip for you, if ever you decide to travel or work in Africa. Suppress the Western impulse to greet someone with a “Wow, are you losing weight?” as this could be a huge insult. You might accidentally be calling someone poor or sick. On the other hand, if you’re greeted with a “Wow, you’re huge!” then take this as a compliment.