Many of us have memories as children sitting at the family dinner table, being lectured about how “there are starving children in Africa who would be grateful for that broccoli” or whatever side dish you picked around. And although we had no real understanding about what it means to be starving, most of us felt some moral responsibility to finish our vegetables.
I have met starving children in Kenya. Without question, it is a very serious issue. This post is not intended to argue against that point. However, there are also children in Kenya who are in more fortunate circumstances, learning to intentionally eat more than necessary to sustain themselves. I wish to explore this dichotomy and inform the way in which we understand food in the third world.
I am currently writing from Kenya and have just had two days of active discussion on this topic. It all started when my hostess very kindly commented on how I have not been finishing all of the food on my plate and that she is trying not to take offense to her cooking or hospitality.
Allow me to explain that food at this dinner table is divided equally among all present. I have no control about what or how much is put on the plate I am given. But since I was raised to finish everything on my plate, I have been in pain the last few days, overstuffing my stomach in an attempt to clear my plate, often to the point of nausea.
This was the appropriate action in order to show respect to my hostess; however, I am still unsuccessful.
I first apologized to her, and then tried to explain why I was not finishing my food.
“In the United States, our food has a higher calorie content—a higher energy content—than food in Kenya; so, we eat smaller portions. So you are providing me with the same amount of energy, maybe even more energy, but my stomach is used to the smaller portions, and it must stretch over the next few days before I can fit this entire plate in my stomach.”
I realize this may be a myth, but it certainly feels as if this is the case!
My hostess did not press further at that time, and it’s possible she thought I was complaining that her food was inefficient, having less energy per bite than the American standard.
To be frank, her husband gained weight when he attended university in the United States (probably due to the reverse of the above: his stomach was stretched from years of eating large quantities of ugali and sukuma, and then ate high calorie foods in the U.S.), and so she has developed the idea that most Americans are fat.
In Kenya, as well as other African countries, people desire to be fat; much like how many Americans desire to be skinny. In Kenya, fat people are beautiful and are assumed to be wealthy because only fat people can afford to gorge themselves on food, such as Americans who are perceived to be wealthier—on average—than Kenyans. Unfortunately, many of us know that obesity in the United States often comes from lack in self-control, or disease, or because unhealthy foods that cause obesity are the most affordable foods in the United States. McDouble Cheeseburger. Hot-n-Ready Pizza. All-you-can-eat buffets.
Wealth and beauty certainly add charm to this goal, but I believe the root of this desire to be fat comes from the fear of malnutrition and returning to less fortunate beginnings.
If I really want to compliment someone in rural Kenya (that is, most anywhere outside of Nairobi), I tell them they appear fatter than the last time I saw them. I told this to my friend when he picked me up from the airport. His family is still victim of food distribution challenges in Kenya, and he was very happy to have been complimented.
A few days later, I was eating at a café and the waitress commented on how I left some scraps of goat fat on my plate. She bragged that one year ago, she weighed 52 kilos and now she weighs 62 kilos (about 20 pounds difference) and that she is thrilled about it. That same evening, I was watching a Nigerian soap opera and one of the characters complimented another by saying “you get fatter every day!” Kenyan culture is drenched with this ideal body image.
Although this desire to be fatter provides health and sustenance to a first generation of a malnourished people, I fear it will result in an eating disorder for future generations that are raised up by parents who still hold memory of a harder time.
I am not sure whether my stomach becomes sick to overstuffing or because I know the portion I did not want (but ate anyway out of respect) would have easily satisfied one of the children in the same community in which I’m staying. But who am I to encourage a change in this practice when America is wrought with eating disorders of its own?
Not only do I risk offending my hostess concerning the quality of her food and hospitality, but I also risk disrespecting her reputation, as I learned later that she believes contributing to my weight will demonstrate to my family and friends back home that my needs are more than met in her care.
Whatever the solution, I cannot be the source of it. For this change to happen, like many other successes in Kenya, it must come from within the country. And based on how prevalent these ideals of weight are in the culture and media, it will take a significant movement to reset the course.
For you, I hope this has been insightful in the least. And perhaps the next time your child refuses to finish their dinner, use it as learning opportunity for discussion of healthy choices and habits.