The haze of a harmattan season morning was just starting to clear as I approached the Yoruba Language Center. The dry red dust of the path dirtied my clean feet and sandals. I looked up at the entrance way ahead of me to see the director of my program staring at me as I made my way towards him. He was looking plump and cheery as usual, squinting his eyes even though a grey haze still hung in the air. “E kaaro!” Good morning! I shouted, slightly kneeling with one leg, greeting my boss. “Titilayo! Se daadaa ni?” Titilayo, are you well? He greeted me back. Before I had a chance to answer, he shouted, “Titi, se o mo pe o ti sanra lati igba ti o de Naijiria?” Titi, do you know you have gotten fat since you’ve been in Nigeria? I scoffed, looked down at my tummy and said “Moses, se e mo pe eebu nla ni lati so fun obinrin pe o ti sanra ni Amerika?” Moses, do you know that in America, its an insult to tell a woman she has gotten fat? Well I am definitely not in the U.S. anymore.
In Nigeria, a woman’s weight is just that, her weight, and nothing more. It is discussed like a matter of fact. It is not a delicate, sensitive subject that you would never dare bring up to a woman like it is in the States. The same thing goes for a man. In Nigeria, if your friend has gained weight, you tell him/her directly: Ah ah, Wetin you don dey chop? You don fat. Ah ah! What have you been eating, you’ve gotten fat. Then, you might pat his/her belly for emphasis. The receiver of this news should not get mad or feel bad about themselves because commenting about weight is just like commenting on your friend’s new hair-do. “Oh! You curled your hair–Oh! You gained weight,” same thing.
Nigerians respect bigger people, those who are somewhere in between thin and fat, just enough so you can tell they are eating well. With the spread of Euro-American ideals about the beauty of thinness, the Nigerian opinion on body image might be slowly losing weight. But still, young women don’t strive to be super thin. They don’t diet or deprive themselves of meals to attain a certain mark on the scale. Most young Nigerian women are naturally thin and have very slender, toned arms. The weight starts to come on after they have babies and from then they maintain a certain full-figure until they get really old. Nigerian men also, tend to develop pot bellies and rounder faces as they age. This is not to say Nigerians are overweight, not at all. Overall, they are average and follow the same pattern, unlike the U.S. where you can see an obese person and a skeletally thin person sitting in the same restaurant. Nigerians don’t deviate that much because they all eat more or less the same diet. A typical family doesn’t keep a pantry stocked with snacks fortified with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and coated in high fructose corn syrup. Carbohydrates like yams, rice and wheat, meat and vegetables are the fundamental Nigerian diet, which does not make it easy to actually go on a diet here. You have your junk foods like the popular Cheese Balls, but kids eat them rarely. A typical snack is bananas and ground nuts or little donuts called puff puff.
So can you blame me for gaining a few lbs? My Yoruba teachers, who all said it was good I gained a little weight, said it’s mandatory that I do so when I get back my mom knows they fed me in Nigeria.