In a remote corner of northwest Africa, where the golden dunes of the Sahara reign and camel caravans dot the horizon, lies the country of Mauritania. It is an Islamic state, the size of California and Texas combined, and stretches for miles along the Atlantic coast. Just over 3 million people live in the desolate land.
They call Mauritania the land of one million poets — poets who write about, among other things, the ideal woman being big and buxom. So, it's no surprise that as a saying goes here: "The glory of a man is measured by the fatness of his woman." Yes, that's right. Mauritanians, in their odes and songs, glorify obese women.
For years, being fat and fleshy has been considered beautiful in Mauritania, as elsewhere in northern Africa and the Arab world. Voluptuous women were seen as sexy and a symbol of wealth. Mothers went to extremes to make sure their daughters put on the pounds.
But the government now hopes it can reverse the obesity trend and has mounted a campaign to educate Mauritanians about the hazards of obesity.
But old habits die hard.
Force-feeding is still common here. It's often called "gavage," a French word that describes the process of fattening up geese to produce foie gras. And that is literally what many women in Mauritania are subjected to.
Not far from the edge of the Sahara desert is the Mauritanian capitol, Nouakchott. At the local market, the women sit in colorful groups on the floor, drinking tea and discussing life. An outsider ventures an observation: "They tell us the men here like plump women." Of course they do, the women bellow: when men make love, they want to hold onto flesh and not bones.
Shop worker Magad Mint Seedati says that ''beautiful women are not thin, they should be fat. Thin is not good. The men here always want bigger women. If the woman is not overweight, they won't want her. Big women are a tradition here.''
Just outside the capital, in a suburb where sand blankets the streets, 44-year-old Chaiaa Mohamed Salem lives with her seven daughters and two sons. She says that when she grew up, her mother made her drink fat-rich camel's milk, and sometimes a glass of pure fat, every day.
''You have different pots depending on how old you are, " she explains. "As the girl gets older the pot becomes wider and bigger, so each year since 7 years old, her pot will be wider and bigger. My mother used to put pillows — three or 4 pillows — to prop me up so that I can drink more camel's milk. My mother would pinch and force me to drink the milk.''
Chaiaa tried to resist and when she did she was punished.
''My mother punished me with two pieces of wood, forcing me to eat and drink more," she tells us. "She would tell me to keep drinking, she would use the … wood to hurt me and to make me keep drinking the milk and not vomit. I would drink and drink to the point where it would come out of my nose and mouth. But I was in so much pain that I would swallow it.''
''She wanted me to have fat thighs and fat arms because I would attract men and could have children," Chaiaa explains. "My mother would even use a comb to sweep my arms for the silvery stretch marks to show.''