NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania. February 21, 2008.t -- 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.''
Chaiaa has tried to continue the tradition with her daughters, but she says she failed. She explains that they come from a different generation and camel's milk is difficult to buy in the city. ''I wish my daughters were fat. I don't want them to be slim. I want them to be fatter and bigger than me. When I was their age I was much fatter, much bigger.''
Before I leave her house, Chaiaa invites me to stay with her for a month so she can make me plump and, according to her, pretty. I declined, but thank her for her generous hospitality and leave.
Years ago, May Mint Haidy, who is now a government statistician, says she was forced to fatten up. She says surveys have shown up to 38 percent of Mauritanian women from the ages of 15 to 49 say they were pushed to pile on the pounds. Almost 70 percent of respondents said they don't regret it.
Haidy has formed a non-governmental organization to raise awareness of the issue.
''That is why we have carried out a campaign to convince these women to give up the habit of forced feeding. The reason we as an NGO are trying to spread the message is because this forced feeding can lead to dangerous diseases like heart attacks, blood diseases.''
Haidy educates women and children about the health risks. ''I know women my age who have died because they were force-fed," she says. "It's very dangerous, women can suffer from heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.''
That message may be starting to sink in and the idea of beauty is changing. Fat is not so fashionable anymore. Thin is now in.
Satellite dishes beam in shows from Lebanon and other foreign soap operas showing slimmer, more glamorous women adorning the screen.
Launching a media campaign, the government is showing women how to control their calories.
Yenserha Mint Mohamed Mahmoud, director of the government's campaign, says they have had mixed results so far. ''We talk about the dangers and difficulties in being overweight. It has worked in the capital but not in the rural areas.''
Mahmoud holds seminars to teach women about the health risks. ''We give tapes and videos to women on how to lose weight. We talk to them about a balanced diet. Because traditionally in Mauritania, the diet here is very rich — they eat cous-cous, pure lard — and this is all fattening. The women don't know this food is fattening, so we explain to the women what to eat every day, so they don't put on weight and they can protect themselves from diseases.''
The signs of change can be found at the capital's soccer stadium. As the sun sets over the capital, scores of women arrive at the stadium. Wearing the traditional bright colored malaffa, a long cloak wrapped loosely around the body, and sneakers, some of them circle the grandstands for exercise; others go inside to a women-only gym.
Beating the bulge is an uphill struggle for these women, but it's a start. Gym instructor Kajwan Zuhour has been working here for 13 years. She says many more women are coming to work out, sometimes twice a day.
''Women don't want to be fat anymore, they want to be thin. Women come here to say 'Please, help me, I want to be thinner.' I ask, 'Why? In the past you wanted to be fat. What has changed?' They tell me they just want to be thinner, they like that. We even give them really strict diets. I ask them, 'Can you handle it?' They say yes."
Zuhour tells me some women want to look like American pop stars Shakira and Britney Spears.
Back at the market, some women can be found who agree with the anti-obesity efforts. Mariam Mint Abdallah explains that ''thin women look young and more beautiful. Being fat is not good for my health.'' She asks me if I know of any good diets.
But the Mauritanian men are confused. They cannot decide what is more attractive. Two friends we spoke to at the market began arguing, each preferring a different size and shape.
Textile vendor Al Hajj Alami Ahmed Jido told us that ''in the past, Bedouins liked big women. But now that the Bedouins have gone, the men prefer women who are average weight, thinner women because society has changed. Big women could not travel, could not get into cars or fly on planes.''
In case you were wondering, he told us his wife was an ''average size.''
Haidy says that the government's ad campaigns are not reaching everyone. "What is more serious and detrimental to their health is that the majority of these young girls do not listen to the media, radio and TV. Only 27 percent listen to the radio once a week. Only 11 percent read news papers."
Just like the shifting sands of the fabled Sahara desert, messages here often spread slowly.