Nonfiction | March 01, 2003
Dieting in Africa
THE FIRST TIME I heard about dieting, it was my mother who was doing it. In my eighth year, my mother, father and I lived in the town of Eku, in the middle of the Nigerian rain forest. My sister was away at boarding school. My parents were medical missionaries, and one of the things my mother did was visit village clinics, where she taught mothers about good nutrition, germ theory and the love of Jesus. This was in the early ’60s, and we occupied a lovely ranch-style house—copied, I guess, from some American model. Ours was made of cement block, though, and two weeks after completion, mold had already begun to creep across the corrugated roof; the cement floors never dried properly. We had louvered windows on the inside, and on the outside there were screens and metal latticing; air conditioning wasn’t even a dream for us yet. Most of our furniture was handmade by the hospital carpenters, from mahogany. We owned a prime mahogany dining table as big as a raft, around which the three of us gathered to feast on spoon bread and homemade potato fries, sliced tomatoes, okra and chocolate pie for dessert.
Although my mother wasn’t eating chocolate pie now; she was dieting. In the evening, I could find her on the tiled floor of the little foyer. Here she had room for leg lifts and sit-ups and scissor kicks and, when she was standing up, a kind of arm swinging and toe touching that made her look like a tilting windmill. I remember mostly the leg lifts, how serious she became doing them, how, when finally her legs reached the floor, she let out a pumped sigh of relief.
When we visited the River Ethiope, a paradisiac body of water that would put Thoreau and his Walden to shame, my mother exercised. I romped in the cold, clear, artesian well, imagining myself and my best friend, David, as members of a water-breathing genus. We were bold as elephants crossing the current, and every afternoon was an eternity. But my mother, head high above water, kicked her legs out while holding fiercely to the pier. Every afternoon for her was a regimen of kicks and pulls. It went along with her diet. Everything about dieting, it seemed, was dead serious, and you hoped it would be over soon.
Back at home after our swim, I ate like Hercules, and my father and I helped ourselves to seconds. Not my mother. She began her day with grapefruit, one boiled egg, maybe a piece of dry toast. She wasn’t about to ruin the entire day by splurging on dessert in the evening. She bowed to the scales as regularly as a Muslim to Mecca—which was often, from what I had witnessed in Nigeria in those days.
I did not understand dieting. My mother had always looked like my mother; she had not lost or gained or aged or anything. To my mind, her dieting availed nothing, though I suppose she did lose ten pounds or so after many weeks of this agony. Perhaps we were preparing for the annual Mission Meeting, where she would see friends she had not met for a year. Or perhaps we were going on Local Leave to somewhere like Lagos, and she wanted to look good in some dress from America that she was going to wear at our nightly dinners in that exquisite dining room at the Mission Hostel. There we ate like princes and queens, partaking of numerous courses, all served to us by Nigerian stewards dressed in impeccable white uniforms with gold buttons.
This was all happening when Nigeria was a new nation, and for the most part people were not hungry, though many children were malnourished. Passing through villages on the way to the river I often saw youngsters with large, protruding bellies but very slender legs. I wondered about this anomaly, unable to figure out why their weight wasn’t distributed properly all over their bodies like mine was.
The next time I encountered dieting, it was over before I knew it. We had gone on furlough to the U.S., and in Easley, South Carolina, I helped myself to all sorts of things I had never seen or at least didn’t remember: little white donut holes, chocolate cookies in a bag, Lay’s potato chips and miniature cakes wrapped in cellophane. I thought all of these packaged wonders were a sign of wealth and happiness. After a year and no river and precious little exercise, I gained about twelve pounds. But no one told me, and I didn’t notice. It was only when I got back to Nigeria and after I had lost those pounds that a friend mentioned how chubby I had been on return. So I had dieted naturally, just by being back in the tropics, spending my days outside racing, jumping rope, trying my best at the high jump and so on. And, of course, not watching TV We had no TV
Finally, I had to think about dieting as something I might do, not because I needed to but because other girls were doing it. They were older girls, in the far reaches of the tenth grade, in the Southern Baptist Mission boarding school I now attended in the southwestern region of Nigeria, on the outskirts of the city of Oshogbo, to be exact. Tenth grade was as old as you got before you went to America for good, forgot Africa and got ready to be a co-ed (a word that I never understood in Africa but which I thought—from studying American magazines—meant having good hair and wearing hose and going on dates with boys in cars).
I was a mere eighth grader; I had just graduated to the older girls’ wing of the dorm. When I walked down to the truly older girls’ rooms, I stood amazed. There was Melba Smith in her slip in front of the mirror, her breasts like small European nations, applying her foundation. Here was I amidst an entirely new vocabulary: foundation, blush, eye shadow, mascara. Lipstick at least I knew. My mother wore lipstick, and my mother dieted. Apparently dieting, like makeup, was part of maturing for girls. But I had not thought to bring any makeup back from our last furlough. Of course, at the time I had been ten years old and had not anticipated a need for it. I looked for some makeup in the Kingsway department store in lbadan, but what they had was too dark for me; I don’t think in Nigeria they sold that much makeup to blondes.
So I needed makeup, and I should seriously consider dieting. All of the ninth and tenth grade girls were dieting. And why? Well, because the primary older girl, the queen of the year, the Westerner among us natives, Cathy Brown, was going on a diet. And why was she going on a diet when her weight was normal? Because she could, and because doing so made her even more primary, more queenly, more Western. As far as I knew, Nigerians never dieted to lose; only the other way around, to gain—even, or especially, the women.
As with my mother, part of the older girls’ dieting was exercise. Even though we got up every morning at 6:45 for our boarding-school regimen, these older girls began to arise at 6:00 A.M. for a run around the sports field. They headed out with their hair still in rollers but banded closely by scarves so as to keep the rollers from bouncing. In their shorts and sleeveless T-shirts they ran in the heavy morning air, around and around, slower and slower, until at last Cathy determined that they had run enough, and they stopped. Ever so slowly they walked back toward our wing, through the screened door and back into their rooms. They must have showered because by now they were wet as swimmers. And exhausted before the day began. But after all, dieting is about priorities: would you rather be enviably skinny or enjoy a good meal? Well, that’s easy. And would you rather be enviably skinny or be able to concentrate on your schoolwork? That’s even easier.
At meal time the older girls practiced giving away food. Cathy gave away desserts. Boys stood in line to receive them. I had never considered that giving away dessert might be a way to attract boys, but now that I look back on it, it was a stunningly good idea. First of all, you were behaving like a girl, which is something boys prefer. They don’t really like girls acting like boys: eager, ambitious, full-voiced and hungry. Second, you are giving something to them. This is also a thing boys like; they like to walk away with something they got from you. Third, you are denying yourself. This may seem merely a restatement of point number one, but it is such a strong point that it deserves its own number. Giggling, waiting, running funny and self-effacement (“Oh, I’m so fat,” said by a girl you can hardly see when she stands sideways) qualify as acting like a girl. All of these behaviors were largely foreign to me still. In the eighth grade I never considered giving my dessert away, and no boys lined up around me at dinner time.
Dessert was not all Cathy gave up. She gave up potatoes, noodles, bread, milk and all manner of foods one needs in order to live. If any girl among us who was actually overweight had gone on a diet, she would merely have been pitiful; no one would have followed suit because she was not popular to begin with. It was a girl who was popular and didn’t need to lose weight who got the other older girls dieting. There’s something very Western about this sort of dieting. If you are privileged and have everything you need, you can do without—proof of aristocracy and femininity all rolled into one.
In those days, in the mid-’60s, I was still eating normally, and my long legs were trim from PE. in the afternoon, tropical air, walking everywhere on the compound and occasionally hopping the compound fence and roving the woods to find those little bright brooks with the darting fish. When I needed a snack, I ate the bittersweet pitanga cherries on the bushes down by the Ogbomosho-Oshogbo road or sucked the beans of the cocoa pod or helped myself to an orange from a tree, which I sometimes had to climb for.
The year of Cathy and the Dieters was the first year of the Nigerian Civil War, the Biafran War. Already children were dying in Biafra from severe kwashiorkor. When I left Nigeria that summer with my parents, going “home” for furlough and to be reunited with my sister—who was already in the U.S., getting ready to be a co-ed—I saw all over the Swiss airport posters of starving Nigerian children. The war would go on for two more years. Meanwhile, those older girls from Newton had dispersed across the Western world, where they would continue to diet in new and bold geographies.
Finally I myself went on a diet. I began in America, where one can always learn more about bettering oneself—indeed, where the purpose of life is to better oneself. We were on furlough in Decatur, Georgia, for the year, and as a ninth grader, I found myself taking a course in home economics; whose idea this was I cannot say. After I had learned to sew a skirt rather badly and had had my face “made over” by a demonstrator of cosmetics who visited our class one day (I was selected as the girl who most needed “making over”), and after we had learned to cook a simple meal, then we all learned how to go on a diet. We learned the food pyramid, how much of each category of food we needed and what we needed positively to avoid—anything pleasurable. Maybe it was time for this instruction because I had spent the winter eating vanilla ice cream with Hersheys chocolate syrup. My sister had even remarked one day that I was becoming somewhat “thick.” I thought the main thing about dieting would be to eat less dessert and fewer snacks. But the lesson was not that simple. One morning I ate only small portions of my mother’s pancakes with syrup and bacon; I thought, after all, that one could eat breakfast. But when I got to Home Ec and counted the morning’s calories under the tutelage of my teacher, I learned that I had eaten all my allotment for the day. I was crestfallen. So then I buckled down. I learned that dieting was not about sensible eating of normal foods but about insensible eating of intolerable foods—celery, for example, and lettuce and lean patties of beef without bread or french fries. About frigid moments of lean chicken and something called “melba toast.”
I stuck with the diet long enough to look reasonable in a two-piece pink bathing suit that I wore to an end-of-year party at the beach. This time I returned to Africa having already dieted. Still, my grandest diets were yet to come.
While I was in Atlanta that spring, the two-year mark in the Biafran War passed without notice.
The more you suffer, the more you are dieting.
This is how the mornings were my last summer in Nigeria. I would wake up, and the first thing I saw was that clear, pinkish fingernail polish I had applied the night before. When I rose and went to the window, there was the African morning, brilliant as ever. You cannot, by the way, get an African morning in America. In America, it’s like God has cracked a book halfway, but in Nigeria the book is laid out and open on its spine. I could see the low trees at the compound’s edge. If I went outside and took a walk along one of those local paths that skirted the compound, I might come onto a slow rise and note how quietly the fog rested on the branches of trees and hovered over the foot path, the path itself wet and brown. After a while, I would see the hill rising, and when I climbed it I would look down in places and see the valley dipping below, a vivid green, and begin to recognize the leaves around me in their separateness, and all around the dense, heavy quietness of the morning, until 1 might notice a man coming along the path who hailed me. In that moment the sun would pierce the calm, and I would see him distinctly—his square chin and taut arms and silver light on his collar bone. Except that I did not go out for a morning walk. It was not part of my life now to wander and explore, to stretch my body and climb trees and swim into the current. I was casting my eyes to America, where girls lived in interiors and spent lots of time with manicures and facials. Instead of walking, I stayed in bed late and read Reader’s Digest romance novels, looked over and over at the decaying teen magazines I had brought from the U.S. the year before, listened to Simon and Garfunkel and the Beatles and-I blush to say it—Tom Jones. Once I did get up, I tried to sunbathe in a twopiece bathing suit from Georgia, my towel spread over a thousand mudstools in the front yard—little castles built by insects in the night that hardened in the day. Any Nigerian who could see me must have been insulted or amused.
With so little activity, I gained two or three pounds, all of which collected in my thighs. Some of this rounding was normal; I was becoming a woman. But none of the models in Seventeen magazine were allowed this natural curve. From what I could comprehend, the ideal had nothing to do with the real.
And it wasn’t just American magazines that were influencing my thinking. The rumor on the mission-kid circuit—which, by the way, was amazingly swift, if not accurate—was that some of the girls at the northern boarding school of Hillcrest had gone on a diet the year before. Once again there was a lead dieter, the beautiful Susan Leverets. Susan was far more beautiful than Cathy Brown; she had been beautiful forever. You knew she would never be without a man. The story I heard was that she ate three green beans a day, exercised in her room endlessly and had achieved the famed skinniness of Twiggy. She and her coterie would be coming to the summer Mission Meeting, so it was imperative for me to shed some weight if I was going to compete, or at least not embarrass myself. One of my peers in Ogbomosho, Delene Dosher, joined with me to prepare for the coming onslaught of this Tribe of the Thin. Even though she and I had fought most of the year—silently, because Southern Baptist girls in boarding school don’t fight out loud-we became comrades in dieting. At the time I weighed one hundred thirty-five pounds, a normal weight for a girl standing five feet eight and a half inches tall. But this summer I intended to get way past normal to subnormal.
It was hard work. Sometimes Delene and I took turns exercising in each others’ homes in the evenings, doing all the moves we had learned at boarding school and others we had learned from our girlfriends. We would put on music and try to run in place in the living room for thirty minutes. But these exercise gigs were on and off, not a regular thing. And then there was so little to do in Nigeria in the summer if you were a white girl, besides eat. Meals were the chief entertainment, and every lunch and dinner of my life, we had had dessert. Dessert was something you had, like iced tea. But I was determined not to have it anymore. Instead I learned to bake all kinds of rich desserts for other people to eat. Perhaps I thought that if those around me gained weight, I would look as though I had shrunk. I still have some of the recipes. I typed them up that summer and packed them in my suitcase on the way out of the country. Here, for example, is Hot Fudge Pudding:
Sift together into bowl 1 c sifted flour
2 t. baking powder 1/z t. salt
3/4 c sugar 2 T cocoa Stir in
1/z c milk
2 T shortening melted Blend in
1 c chopped nuts or coconut Spread in 9″ sq. pan Sprinkle with mixture of
1 c brown sugar 4 T cocoa
Pour over entire batter 1 3/ c hot water
Bake in 350 degree oven for 45 minutes
Makes 9 servings
I am sad to realize that the only writing I have from my fifteenth year is these typed recipes. There were Toffee Squares and Date Raptures and Grossmutter’s Filled Cookies and Mother’s Coconut Pie and Cherry Brazil Nut Cake. There was Seven-Layer Vanilla Cake with Chocolate Icing, Sunny Banana Pie, Carrot-Pineapple Three-Layer Cake, Congdon Oatmeal Cookies. That summer, I didn’t eat a single bite of any of them, not even a lick. I was saintly, pure as snow. I looked at that dark sin and didn’t even flinch. Now I was giving dessert away to everyone. I was Jesus multiplying those loaves and fishes, only my baskets were sweeter, my outlay more delicious.
There’s something very clarifying about dieting. What it clarifies is other people’s sinfulness and gross normalcy, which puts you in a very good light in your mind. As others gobbled down the seven-layer cake, I secretly practiced tightening my abdominal muscles. And when I was standing in my room alone, I tried to determine whether my pelvic bones were poking out any further. I scrutinized the interiors of my knees when I sat down, to see if they were yet convex.
If you’ve ever been on a diet, you know that all you think about is food. Your mental landscape is reduced to meals and the time between them. You go to bed early to be away from the obsession and because when you do get up, you eat. Now, rather than getting up at noon to eat pancakes and ponder the provocative scenes of the novel I had just set aside, I arose early to boil an egg and slice a piece of toast thin as paper and prayerfully lay open an African grapefruit. How I ate became ritualized: how I put the egg on the toast, how I cut it, how many pieces I could make, how long it took. You would have thought I was a Catholic looking for sainthood instead of a mere Southern Baptist.
The pounds began to come off slowly. When my face began to thin, I really saw the difference. I wasn’t myself, and that was good.
Finally Mission Meeting came, and I thought I was skinny, but that was before I saw Susan Leverets. I spotted her standing in the cafeteria line at the dining hall, where all the mission family partook of its meals. Susan looked so different I hardly knew her, except by the way she crossed her arms and held herself back and only half smiled at anyone and never nodded her head in recognition but waited for you to speak. She looked like an older sister of herself, only smaller somehow. Her blue eyes shone out of her face like she had a fever. I guess she was the perfect fulfillment of the Victorian ideal right here in Yoruba land, with her wrists not much bigger than a finger. She hadn’t only lost weight; she was shorter, absolutely shrunk, evacuated. I saw that I had a long way to go to get down to her size. And try as I might to reduce, I was never going to be petite like Susan Leverets. I was never going to have those gazing blue eyes with the little specks of dark in them. I was never going to have her quiet arms. Susan never made things easy for the rest of us, who were so close to normal we were pitiful.
My mother objected to the dieting—at least she did after I lost the first ten pounds or so. She didn’t understand that dieting is not undertaken by girls in order to reach an ideal weight. It’s a competition, like drag racing. The point is to see how far you can go, to reach the limit and then exceed it. It’s a way to be a girl and reach for fame quietly, like starlets in a silent movie, until you finally just fade away. I guess the ultimate victory would be to kill yourself. So you urinate in the morning, pushing out every last drop, and then you take off your gown or pajamas and your panties—you even consider cutting your hair—and then you step onto the scales, gingerly, hoping to levitate. And then you read the number. It doesn’t matter if you have lost or gained or stayed the same. It is never enough, and you determine to be more diligent. Only half a piece of dry toast this morning.
By the time I stepped on that Nigerian Airways with my mother, who was carrying me to America to deposit me with my sister, leaving my dear father in that African sun, waving, I guess I was skinny enough. The Biafran War was over. There were many children in Nigeria, and especially in the former Biafra, who were skinny enough that summer.
In 1970, in America, living with family friends, and with my sister close by in college, I ate. In America I always ate. There was so much to eat. If you wanted sweets, you didn’t have to wait for Christmas when Uncle Jerry Gaultney made a batch of fudge. You just walked into a grocery or into this new invention called a 7-Eleven, and there were aisles and aisles of sweets. I started eating Pop Tarts for breakfast and, to be honest, between every meal. I might eat a box a day. They were so there. And I drank Coca-Cola as easily as water. You could drink as many Cokes as you wanted. In Nigeria, when I was growing up, we’d had one Coke a week, on Sunday afternoon. For lunch with my new friends, I ate french fries and a Coke or french fries and Hawaiian Punch, which was probably worse.
After the school year had passed, my sister and I traveled back to Nigeria for the summer, to be with our parents in Ogbomosho. Again I dieted. This time I was going for the promised land.
I did need to lose ten pounds. I lost forty in ten weeks, going from one hundred and fifty to one hundred and ten. By the end of the summer, I was taking in all of my clothes. I had not weighed so little since I was ten.
What I craved that summer was a kind of hollowed-out look. C course, now 1 can see how scandalous this was. There were childre in Biafra still starving in the chaotic aftermath of the civil war, and was trying to achieve a kind of genteel level of starvation, a romant Western thinness, the sort that applied only to women. I didn’t wai to look like a refugee; the look I had in mind was plotted, brisk as ne, money, every hair in place and your fingernails groomed, your eyc kind of vacant looking.
The closer I got to leaving Nigeria for good, the more I knew I was losing. That summer I practiced losing as a way of getting ready for America for the rest of my life. Maybe if I got used to hunger, I coul survive in the U.S., that land of conformity and self loss. America was the most dangerous place I’d been to.
I have often wondered if that last summer was the beginning of the end of my health. In the U.S., at age twenty-five, I was diagnosed wil diabetes. At age forty-three, I suffered end-stage renal disease as a result of years of diabetes. There is no evidence, of course, that dieting leads to diabetes. But what dieting can lead to is imbalance: blood sugars racing up and down like fingers on piano scales. In my present life I read about possible spiritual causes for the onset of diabetes: longing for what might have been. Deep sorrow. No sweetness left. I catch my breath.
I was so powerful in my African youth: quick, passionate, he sturdy as those concrete houses we lived in.
Recently I underwent a kidney/pancreas transplant. No more dialysis; no more needles. Before too long, I hope to travel back to Nigeria I will not diet before I go or after I arrive. Instead, I plan to eat lots local foods, as much fried plantain as I desire. Pineapples and banans and pawpaw and mango and avocado, that fruit of the gods, and peanut stew, though I don’t think I’ll go in for any bush meat. And I’m going to swim in the Ethiope until nightfall and walk Nigerian roac and paths, every path I can find that will take me.
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