FAT: Lessons from Malawi

My relative lack of appetite has become something of a joke in our tiny little Malawian village. When I first arrived, my host-mom Jureka seemed determined to feed me all she could. We cycled through fish, goat, potatoes, chicken, rice, beef, bread, beans, eggs, and nsima (cooked maize flour) before Jureka decided I must either be sick or just didn’t like the food. Otherwise I would eat more. Despite my very real love of food, something about the combination of time change, loss of appetite from malaria medication, and the effects of witnessing what happens when a live goat encounters a dull machete seemed to diminish my appetite. Three full plates a day of fried potatoes, vegetables, meat, bread, and various sauces was also just more food than I was used to eating every day.

On a trip to visit Jureka’s cousin, we sit out on bamboo mats in the compound, Jureka telling them how little I eat. This seems impossible. As a white woman, an Azungu, I have money for things like rice and meat—every day if I wanted them! To not eat and enjoy while I can seems crazy. Eletina, Jureka’s cousin, looks me over. “You are here for ten months? Eh! But I will send Bridget to you to eat your food. In that time, she will get very fat”. Looking at skinny three-year-old Bridget and inwardly thinking this would be a very good idea, I laugh along with the rest, enjoying that at the very least my appetite can amuse.

Claire with Jureka and host familyA few days later, we are moseying down to the lake to see the hippos, I ask, “Is it good to be fat?” Jureka laughs. “Of course! If you are skinny people say you are sick. Or poor.” I mull this over. Years spent watching what I eat. Guilt inherent in a scoop of ice cream or toast…breakfast cereal. I feel the need to explain. “In America, people spend a lot of money trying to lose weight! People take pills and follow diets, have surgery…” I trail off. Jureka looks at me to see if I’m serious. “But here people take injections. Or take ARTs [antiretroviral therapy for HIV] even if they don’t have HIV because it makes you more fat.” We walk on.

It is evening. Huge beetles zoom about with helicopter-humming wings, unseen mosquitoes leaving swollen welts on exposed feet and ankles. Built next to the health clinic, the house where I live is one of about ten houses in a district of 30,000 people that has electricity. As I lounge about sweating, I both enjoy the luxury of my well-lit dinner, but hate the lights for their added heat in this Malawian summer.

Sitting in front of the TV, a weight-loss program comes on the screen. A whale of a man is shown eating and lumbering about, friends and family interviewed to query how he ever got that way “He used to work…” “It’s all been downhill since he lost his job…” “I remember when he wrestled”….

Poking around at my last potato, the lumbering man is now pledging allegiance to some campaign or another promising a trim physique in ninety days. ”That is not fat” Jureka intercedes, eyeing him skeptically, “that is…I don’t know”.

“Am I fat?” the question bursts out, I can’t help myself. Jureka laughs again, looking me up and down. “You? You are a medium. You are more beautiful than many of the women who come here who are too skinny.” I shudder, blaming the comment on my baggy shirt and long skirt. But all those crunches! I resolve to eat fewer potatoes.

On a shopping trip into town with Jureka I stand in the dusty dirt road outside the shop, Malawian sun high and growing, my hair a sweaty, dripping mess underneath the brim of my floppy orange hat. A man at a push-pedal sewing machine rhythmically swings his foot, up and down, turning his head and pausing the humming needle to usher me inside the shop, “Come my sister.” I step onto rickety boards forging a bridge over the deep moat alongside the road and up the steps. Inside, shady heat and the ripe odor of sweat and cooking smoke mingle with the ironed scent of heated fabric. No room to properly stand: cloth and needles, patterns, people, pictures lining the walls of dresses on models. Plump, busty women with lips and hips fitted into skirts and blouses, full forms encased in sparkly material peering out with photo-frozen smiles.

As I gaze I feel my little B-cup breasts beginning to shrink, shooting back into my chest and into nothingness. My lips suddenly thin and un-kissable, skinny bottom too flat to face the two plump melons of rump flaring out well-placed ruffles….I stop myself. Shouldn’t this make me feel liberated?! Suddenly it’s good to be fat! Why am I not running towards a milkshake?

Four weeks now in the country and I’ve stopped shaving, leg hair fuzzy and long—a favorite of Mbumu’s to grab at with her pudgy, eight-month-old fingers. Maybe it’s living without a mirror or taking a shower out of a bucket, looking out the window at that huge African sun hanging low in the sky for all the world a fiery beach ball ready to plunge into that deep blue lake. Here are the goats, the mango trees dripping with ripening fruit, the giant baobab trees casting long threadlike shadows on the red earth. Sinking into this place: the boy across the street selling apples from a misted box on his head, brightly colored red and gold patched insects stalking by in a mating dance, the feel of wind and filtered sunlight on my face, the warmth of a passing smile….

Catching my face in the reflection of my computer screen, sloppy bun sticking out the top of my head, pale skin slightly pink from sunburn, I reflect that I’ll probably always be something of a spectacled, medium-sized, average sort of person. And sitting here, looking out at growing maize and tall lemon trees, I find I’m ok with that.


Claire Donnelly (Yale University)

31_Very Exciting Lizard!A native of Berkeley, CA, Claire has always had many interests and passions–people being one of them. She grew up juggling and unicycling, riding horses, waterskiing, and roaming the hills and beaches of the Bay Area. One auspicious summer, Claire discovered molecular biology and has never looked back. She received her degree in the subject from Yale in 2014, and is now spending a year researching malaria in pregnancy in a tiny village in northern Malawi. Claire is new to Humanism, but hopes to use her love of people and stories to expand her thinking, especially through her work with this blog. Claire loves to receive emails, especially regarding thoughts about her writing and other stories.

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