Monday, May 19, 2014

Forced Feeding and Fattening Tradition in Mauritania.

Fat Mouritania Women

This may sound bizarre, but it is true that African men do love fat women. This may have a legacy implication. In Africa, being fat has only one nuance: wealth. And parents pass this indulgent down the generations. A culture in Cross River State of Nigeria, West Africa, demands that a young bride be kept in a native fattening facility to be fattened prior to her wedding day.

A similar tradition is in Mauritania where Young girls are traditionally force-fed and fattened for the sake of beauty and marriage. Heavier girls and women are viewed as beautiful, wealthy and socially-accepted while their slimmer counterparts are considered inferior and bring shame on their families in Mauritanian society.

Well it is easy to understand, because African marriages are pure carnivals, featuring colorful costumes decked with fanciful beads and ornaments. It is believed that the beads and ornaments are better appreciated if they grace the waist of a dancing bride with protruding love-handles.


Historians say the practice dates back to pre-colonial times when all Mauritania's white Moor Arabs were nomads. The richer the man, the less his wife would do - the preference being for her to sit still all day in her tent while her black slaves saw to household chores. Ancient Berber quatrains laud tebtath (stretchmarks) as jewels. Even today lekhwassar (fat around the waist) is given lyrical pride of place and girls sent for fattening gain the stature of mbelha.

They are taught to sit in the lotus position, speak softly, use utensils and to emulate the exemplary lives of the Prophet Muhammad's wives. Fattening of girls is practised beyond Mauritania, in northern Mali and rural Niger - areas conquered, along with half of present-day Spain and Portugal, by the Almoravid dynasty in the 11th century. The practice of fattening also continues in Nigeria's Calabar state and north Cameroon.

What happens at the camps.

Fears are growing for the fate of thousands of young girls in rural Mauritania, where campaigners say the cruel practice of force-feeding young girls for marriage is making a significant comeback since a military junta took over the West African country.

In their quest to find a husband, many of the women are being pushed to dangerous lengths to gain weight from being force fed to taking pills that are not fit for human consumption. U.S. journalist Thomas Morton was sent to Mauritania to investigate the problem for the HBO documentary series, Vice.

Documentary on Mouritania

But he wasn't just to observe what was happening - he had to eat the diet of the Mauretanian women and take the pills they took to see what impact it had on his health. He found that girls are fattened up from the age of eight by their families in a practice referred to as 'gavage' - a French word that means force feeding and is used to describe the fattening of geese to make foie gras.

Once they reach a marriageable age, girls are sent to 'fat camps' in the desert where they are fed 15,000 calories a day.  For breakfast, the girls have breadcrumbs soaked in olive oil washed down with camel's milk. They then have frequent meals throughout the day of goat's meat, bread, figs and couscous, all with more camel milk to drink.

Morton found that many refer to the over-eating as torture and parents have been known to crush their daughters' toes with pincers if they resist. After trying the diet, Morton put on nearly a stone in two days and was left feeling bloated and unhealthy.

'Women can't have children because of this type of gavage. The big problem is this often leads to heart failure, repeated heart attacks, rare are the ones who escape'

He said: 'It feels like the food has filled my entire chest cavity and is now deflating my lungs.'

He questioned how the women must feel having to do this over a lifetime given how terrible it made him feel after two days. Their obesity also means the women are more likely to suffer from  ill-health and develop problems like heart disease.

Morton said he felt sick from the food he was having to consume, a problem often experienced by the Mauretanian women. So they have found another way to gain weight that's easier to stomach but just as damaging to their health - taking pills.

How are the girls treated at these camps.

"I make them eat lots of dates, lots and lots of couscous and other fattening food," Fatematou, a voluminous woman in her sixties who runs a kind of "fat farm" in the northern desert town of Atar, told BBC World Service's The World Today program.

She said she was soon expecting to take charge of some seven-year-olds.

Fattening camps in Mouritania

"I make them eat and eat and eat. And then drink lots and lots of water," she explained.
"I make them do this all morning. Then they have a rest. In the afternoon we start again. We do this three times a day - the morning, the afternoon and the evening."

She said the girls could end up weighing between 60 to 100 kilograms, "with lots of layers of fat."

Fatematou said that it was rare for a girl to refuse to eat, and that if they did, she was helped by the child's parents.

"They punish the girls and in the end the girls eat," she said.
"If a girl refuses we start nicely, saying 'come on, come on' sweetly, until she agrees to eat."
Fatematou admitted that sometimes the girls cried at the treatment.
"Of course they cry - they scream," she said.
"We grab them and we force them to eat. If they cry a lot we leave them sometimes for a day or two and then we come back to start again.
"They get used to it in the end."
She argued that in the end the girls were grateful.
"When they are small they don't understand, but when they grow up they are fat and beautiful," she said.
"They are proud and show off their good size to make men dribble. Don't you think that's good?"

Another woman who runs a similar camp says.

'How do small girls eat these gargantuan amounts of food? "I'm very strict," boasts Elhacen. "I beat the girls, or torture them by squeezing a stick between their toes. I isolate them and tell them that thin women are inferior."

Fattening camps in Mouritania

Desert settlements like this 1000-strong farming community with no electricity or running water are popular spots for leblouh because there are no distractions and no easy ways to escape. But Elhacen denies that her work amounts to child cruelty. "No, no, it's for their own good," she almost shrieks. "How will these poor girls find a husband if they're bony and revolting?" 

What do sufferers say.

Mariam Mint Ahmed, 25, says it's time leblouh was consigned to history.

"It is our responsibility as a young generation to put an end to the custom that threatens our lives," Mint Ahmed, a married trader who lives in the capital Nouakchott, told CNN. "I know so many innocent girls that were fattened up against their will to be married off and most of them got sick. I feel sad when I constantly see them struggling with blood pressure, hypertension and heart diseases."

"Girls here in Mauritania have suffered a lot from the tradition of leblouh. They are forced to eat up very large quantities of food and drink up bowls of goat's or cow's milk,'' Mint Ahmed added as tears welled in her eyes.

Mariam Mint Ahmed Mouritania

 Mint Ahmed, who has one son, was raised in the city of Kiffa, about 600km (370 miles) away in eastern Mauritania. She tells us that girls who don't finish the fattening meals put before them can be punished. One method, according to Mint Ahmed, is to tie a girl's toes to sticks and if she does not eat, pressure is applied to the sticks sending shockwaves of pain through the girl's feet.

"My mother started fattening me forcibly when I was 13-years-old. She used to beat me to eat more oiled couscous and fat lamb's meat. Each time I thought my stomach would explode," Selekeha Mint Sidi recalls. Mint Sidi was married last year and has one daughter, but she told CNN that she will never fatten her daughter "whatever the reason."

Back in Atar, a collection of narrow, sandy lanes and cubbyhole shops, 26-year-old Zeinebou Mint Mohamed offers a glimpse into the girls' potential future. A grocery-store owner who is 5'4" and over 200 pounds, with her braided hair dyed blonde at the tips and stretch marks on her arms, she's a modern woman who has a love-hate relationship with her size.

Fattening camps in Mauritania

"I was force-fed as a child. I vomited and suffered heartburn and diarrhea, but I gained weight fast," Zeinebou recalls, reclining in her ramshackle two-room home. At 13, she was married to a much older man, and by 16 she had two sons. Then, like any normal teen, she rebelled, prompting her husband to divorce her. Newly single, she was flooded with romantic offers. "I suddenly saw how much Mauritanian men adore very fat women. Men told me I had the most beautiful body in town, and they fought over me." With her huge eyes and charismatic smile, Zeinebou would be a great beauty whatever her size.

But the male reaction to her figure transformed her self-image. "When I realized the power I had over men, I started to enjoy being fat." Zeinebou's current boyfriend, Baba Slama, 29, who is, like many Mauritanian men, rail-thin, agrees that she's in charge. "She's gorgeous; I love her," he says.

Yet Zeinebou's weight slows her down: "I'm always tired, and I wheeze when I walk. I want to be slimmer so I can be more dynamic." A fan of TV soaps beamed in from France and Morocco, she confesses she's drawn to the lifestyles of the female stars. "They seem so independent," she says. "I'd love to be able to wear jeans and high heels. I want to diet, but I'm scared men won't like me anymore."

Is there any hope for change?

However, the view that a fat girl is more desirable is now becoming seen as old-fashioned.
A study by the Mauritanian ministry of health has found that force-feeding is dying out. Now only 11% of young girls are force fed.

"That's not how people think now," Leila - a woman in the ancient desert town of Chinguetti, who herself was fattened as a child - told The World Today.
"Traditionally a fat wife was a symbol of wealth. Now we've got another vision, another criteria for beauty.
"Young people in Mauritania today, we're not interested in being fat as a symbol of beauty. Today to be beautiful is to be natural, just to eat normally."

Young Mauritania Women

 Some men are also much less keen on having a fat wife - a reflection of changes in Mauritanian society.
"We're fed up of fat women here," said 19-year-old shop owner Yusuf.
"Always fat women! Now we want thin women.
"In Mauritania if a woman really wants to get married I think she should stay thin. If she gets fat it's not good.
"Some girls have asked me whether they should get fat or stay thin. I tell them if you want to find a man, a European or a Mauritanian, stay thin, it's better for you. But some blokes still like them fat."
And while there still men who like their women big, Fatematou is on hand to fatten them up with her years of experience.
When asked her if she ever felt cruel, beating and force feeding children?
"No! It's not cruel to make girls fat!" she said.
"Me, I've seen 10-year old girls give birth. I tell you, 10 years old!
"Once they are fat and beautiful they can serve their men well, once they are fat they can be married."

Political scientist Mohamed el-Mounir, 38, claimed western influence had wiped out the allure of feminine fat. "Fattening is something from the 1950s. These days girls watch fashion shows on television. Their role models are American actresses or Lebanese singers in sexy dresses. Girls do sport. Yes, Mauritanian men like slightly round women. But there is no way we want them obese."

Women in Mauritania

Health and development consultant Mounina Mint Abdellah, 51, said she was force-fed as a child by her mother's family. "Things have changed tremendously. When I left school in 1980 it would have been unthinkable for me to go abroad to study. But now, 30 years later, my daughter is doing her master's degree in France. We owe a great deal to the fact that all girls are now expected to go to school. These changes have had a tremendous impact on ancestral practices. Fattening just seems out of date to a large part of Mauritanian society."

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