by Tola Adenle
Before I start this essay, let me confess that I have my own health problems but they are not self-imposed or courted. “The food trap” is a self-imposed jail and we can all do something about being freed from it. You may not go into lock-downs by a prison guard only to be allowed out to get some sun and/or visitors at specific times but the imprisonment by food is as restrictive and potentially deadly.
A male reader actually saw me and suggested I “write something about how many Nigerians, especially those who have the means, are getting fat these days.” Having read a couple of articles on food lately, I flipped through two in particular to get ideas that can serve as guide. The Oprah Magazine, ‘O’ has an extensive write-up on how some women fought and won the battle (yes, there’s no other word for the effort that is necessary to fight the food trap). It also contains some wonderful sayings about food, done up in a way that one can cut them up and paste around the house as reminders. The essay that I chose to guide me is the cover story for the July 18 edition of the Washington Post Magazine titled “The Food Trap.” The illustration on the cover of that insertion is the simple eating device, the fork, the two extreme prongs gripped by two hands. The fork is so menacingly huge that the man behind it (we cannot see his head or legs) seems to be behind bars!
This essay is not meant to chastise or ridicule but to help because that is the intention of the reader who asked me to write this and it is also my goal in taking up the challenge. I call it a challenge because most people who know me have never known a big or fat Tola, and telling people to watch what they eat could sound sanctimonious. In spite of being very small-boned, however, I once went up to a hundred and forty-five pounds and for somebody around five-four and in her early thirties, and NOT expecting a child, that was way overweight. It was arduous repelling twenty pounds and I have endeavored to stay around that same weight since. Several months ago, I went up to a hundred and thirty two pounds and it was the first time in years since I piled on more than a couple of pounds. I fought back and I am back to the weight that I feel comfortable carrying.
This essay is addressed more to my womenfolk although the men do have their own battle with the bottle AND food whose results are all too apparent in the streets of Nigeria. Women, I believe, can determine how the family’s health goes from eating habits. Generally, children eat whatever their mothers prepare and as they grow into adulthood, wives take over from mothers and, in my experience, MOST men would eat whatever their wives prepare but women do not allow them. Uh! uh! We go into marriages armed with pre-formed ideas of how men MUST be fed: the head of the family gets triple the animal-based protein (meat, chicken, fish, etcetera) served what the children who actually need it get, and twice the wive’s. Don’t start having pity on us, guys because many women have devised how not to be “cheated”: they ‘taste’ the saltiness or done-ness of soups with meat!
Now, I’ve heard statements like ‘even if I do not eat, I would still be fat’; ‘we are fat in my family’, etcetera. My usual answer to acquaintances who offer the first excuse is ‘how come that people in refugee camps are never fat?’ To get out of ‘the food trap’, one must stop being in denial. The man who asked me to write mentioned that this is the best time to write this essay as the period of festivities – weddings, Christmas and Ileya in January are almost upon us.
Before I go to the pathetic story of the daughter and father used to illustrate ‘The Food Trap’ in the Post essay, please allow me to offer my suggestions: if you have eaten jollof rice and suddenly, your Ijebu hostess brings out piping hot ikokore at an engagement ceremony, DO NOT LOOSEN YOUR WRAPPER to make room for the new dish! Skip it. Ditto if succulent-looking fish is brought in after you’ve had pounded yam, egusi and cow meat. And of course, either skip the meal before a party at which you know you will eat, or eat your meal and skip everything but water at the party. Ve- e-ry tough, but also very tough is a future that would be filled with health hazards caused by too much food.
“Like millions of Americans, Deke Baskin’s love affair with food has come at a severe cost. At nearly 300 pounds, he is diabetic, needs an oxygen mask and a motorized scooter. His daughter weighs even more. … He sits not moving, in a broken-down motorized shopping cart in a Wal-Mart in Oxford, Mississippi, waiting for store employees to bring him one that works. He sits with his green oxygen tank alongside him … and translucent tubes running into his nose. …”
That is America where service is available even for those who can no longer walk and life support for someone who will run out of breath and collapse if he has to walk around a store, is available. There are people, especially women who can barely walk, navigating road crossings in Lagos and other cities and many die as a result of weight-induced health problems. Unlike in Nigeria, though, where there is nowhere to hide if a person dies of diabetes as the cause of death is always written on death certificates, there are always sinister people and causes to blame in Nigeria. Even ‘men of God’ do not believe enough in the efficacy of the prayers they’ve all mastered to recite for hours.
Deke Baskins is “not fit to walk more than a few steps … without panting so hard … It scares him. At 52, he is an ill man who views his plight as a consequence in no small part of all his good eating over the years.” Correction: bad eating
When we were young, Sisi Eko was a metaphor for fat women who lived in any Yoruba town. Why? Because in those days, Nigerian diet was so sparse that it was only in Lagos that people were able to afford eggs, fried pork and other cholestrol-laden food. In fact, as recently as the early 70’s, eggs were sold by the Ministry of Agriculture in kiosks all over the southwest which meant they were not common in our diet. These days, there are Sisi Ekos everywhere in Nigeria, including my small town where there might have been fat people back in the 50’s but I knew none.
“Like Deke Baskin, his 35-year old daughter, Marie Pomerlee gets winded after walking the shortest of distances.” Dick once owned and managed a renowned barbecue joint in his native Oxford, Miss but his weight-induced ill health led to the closure earlier this year. At 5-9 and 296 pound, Deke is described as “morbidly obese” and apart from diabetes, he has a heart problem; he also suffers from lupus and gout. He and Marie adore food … several slices of high-caloric, high-fat fried catfish as well as lots of junk foods: cookies, sweets, cheeseburgers and fried chicken. Hear Deke’s take of the how to handle stress: “The world’s hard, you know, man? Stressful. And then somebody says, ‘This food is gonna make you feel good, and it tastes so good …’”
The same things that lead to obesity in America are now the culprits in Nigeria: limitless food (for some) and lack of exercise. Although statistics are hard to come by, the incidence of diabetes is so high in Nigeria that most adults have friends or relatives who are diabetic. Deke’s 35-year old daughter stands at only 5-5 but that height carries more than 300 pounds. A Kindergarten teacher, she can barely walk from her desk around her classroom. Marie seems trapped not just by her inability to cut out even the slightest few of the many culprits on her diet but also by where she lives. “When she looks out the back of her house, she can see the Kroger store … loaded with goodies. … past the Kroger store … McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell …”
In a way, I see Marie’s plight of being trapped by forces she cannot resist in the Nigerian situation today. At parties are foods to die (not for, but) from: deep fried finger foods (so-called ‘small chops’), meat, chicken, snails, etcetera that have had deep, long baths in hot oil for several minutes before being drenched in sauces; fried rice, etcetera. Limitless food in mirthful environment; lots of people telling you not to worry because we’ll have to die from one cause or another, ANYWAY (nkan kan sa l’o ma pa ‘nia) – cannot help anybody trying to break the chain of food enslavement.
I leave you with Deke’s powerful words to his daughter as he finally decides to be a father that leads by example. “Marie, I love you. But you need to lose weight for your children.”
Women give much to husbands, children and families but sacrificing for our children is always the easiest.
THE COMET ON SUNDAY, November 2004