A tribe’s fattening culture and its impact on health
Victor John Etuk
When nineteenth century European explorers began to colonize West Africa, they were shocked by the corpulence of the Efik people of the Nigerian coast–over seventy percent of the population weighed more than ninety kilograms.1,2 Little did the Europeans know that fattening rituals took place behind closed doors, which largely contributed to their appearance. Recently, many studies have been devoted to the Efik fattening customs; unfortunately, many of these investigations have only succeeded in glorifying this behavior, disregarding its detrimental effects on health and wellbeing.
Traditionally, many communities in Efik-speaking regions regarded a corpulent female figure as alluring and indicative of good health and prosperity. Ceremonies were organized where young women danced before their village to attract potential suitors. In order to look more attractive, young women were cloistered, undergoing a period of almost total physical inactivity during which they consumed large amounts of food in designated “fattening rooms.” At the same time, older women cared for and instructed them in beauty, etiquette, sexual life, and femininity. This ritual continues to this day.
The fattening process can last from six months to three years; generally six months to one year for girls who are preparing for marriage and three to six months for women shortly after giving birth. The women are often referred to as “Mbobi” in the Efik language, a term in which describes their dainty demeanor and femininity. They are usually fed foods high in fat, such as palm oil, fish, and meat, and foods high in carbohydrates, such as sweet potatoes and yams. Activity is limited only to simple, brief cultural rituals, such as learning folk songs, local dances, and taking care of children. Female circumcision is also a major aspect of the fattening process. This procedure, which is usually performed on all girls, is seen as an essential ritual that cannot be avoided.
During their confinement, older women are hired to massage the Mbobi with powered herbs and white chalk (a form of limestone) at least three times a day to make them fatter and soft to the touch. At the end of their stay in the fattening room, it is expected that they should have outgrown their previous clothes. In addition, the women learn etiquette–how to serve visitors, how to behave with relatives, and how to make traditional artifacts. Good grooming is also emphasized: every morning after a warm bath, they cover themselves with wood powder (camwood), draw patterns on their faces and skin using white chalk, and wear hollow cylindrical brass rings around their ankles. Small stones are placed on these rings, producing a gentle clatter when the Mbobi walk. In addition, they are also taught how to care for the men who will later become their husbands. This training includes cooking and precautions during sex and pregnancy.
Today, with a better understanding of the risks of obesity, researchers are trying to change traditional perceptions. Efik eating habits and lifestyle, however, have been impediments to lasting success, even as fattening rooms disappear from all but rural areas. In an attempt to change cultural beliefs, researchers have focused on the adverse health effects of obesity, but their efforts have not been completely successful. Many Efik women are overweight or obese and at risk of developing diabetes5 or high blood pressure and kidney failure.1 Ancient concepts of appearance still hold sway, leaving many urban Nigerian women susceptible to the modern sedentary lifestyle and a diet high in fat, salt, and processed foods. Until perceptions of beauty are changed, Efik women will continue to remain at risk.
- Abiola O, Obesity and elevated blood pressure among adolescents in Lagos, Nigeria: a cross-sectional study, BMC Public Health 2012, 12:616, doi:10.1186/1471-2458-12-616.
- Adam KE, The advent of the whites, Heinaman pub 1942, pp 18-19.
- Annaang People. Wikipeadia. Last updated February 27, 2013.
- Agbogun J, Efik Women marriage and the fattening, Nigeria, People and Culture. Last updated November 15, 2011.
- Enang OE, The fattening rooms of Calabar – a breeding ground for diabesity, Diabetes Voice, Volume 54.
- Goldie H, ed. Calabar and its missions, The Library Of Victoria University of Toronto Jeoinlnmib Anfc Xonoon Oliphant Anderson & Ferrier 1901, c198-201. Accessed February 18, 2013.
VICTOR JOHN ETUK is a Nigerian writer and an aspiring academic. He was born in Uyo, Akwa Ibom state, Nigeria, and obtained his BSc in Human Anatomy from the University of Calabar, Cross River State in 2011. Since graduation, he has been working on publishing a couple of books and is currently serving as a youth Corp Member in Katsina state where he lectures at the School of Health Technology, Daura, Katsina State.
Highlighted in Frontispiece Winter 2014 – Volume 6, Issue 1