Mauritania Tries to Reverse Obesity Tradition

Women in this west African country are still force-fed to stay fat.

ByABC News via GMA logo
February 21, 2008, 5:18 AM

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.''