The Obese Of Congo: When Wealth Leads To Weight Gain

After a nearly 10 percent jump in obesity, the first efforts have been launched at educating Congolese about both diet and exercise. But skinny to many means sick -- and poor.

Happy baby, wealthy baby, chubby baby
Happy baby, wealthy baby, chubby baby
Cosmas Mungazi

GOMA – The city of Goma, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, has seen a 10% rise in the number of obese people in five years. If this trend continues, more than 20% of the city's population will be overweight in 2021, according to public health specialists.

A typical meal in these parts consists mostly of beans, milk, soy, sugary foods, potatoes and red meat. “If you have decent wages, your fare consists of fatty and sugary foods --every day,” says Fiston Kambake, who owns a restaurant.

In Western countries, public health campaigns have been relaying, for many years now, the importance of a daily diet that includes fruits and vegetables. In the Congo, there has been no such campaign, even though the number of overweight people has gone from 5.6% to 14.5% between 2007 and 2011, according to health authorities.

But more and more, you may spot an obese person pedaling on a bike -- either a stationary one in a gym, or a real one on the road -- in an effort to try to lose a few pounds. “My doctor told me to exercise a lot, not to eat more than two potatoes and an egg per day," says one plump gym member. "But I can’t seem to lose any weight.”

“When we started to earn good salaries,” explains Suzana Kitwanda, who works in an international NGO, “we stopped being careful about what we were eating – fatty and sugary foods, more than three times a day. My husband, who is 30-years-old, weighs more than 100 kilograms (220 lbs).”

The richer, the fatter

The number one factor for Congo’s obesity epidemic is processed food. Kahene Abel, an engineer at the head of the provincial agricultural inspection bureau says that “rural families are less affected by this since they eat natural food” – mainly for economic reasons. Processed foods – cans, prepared meals, frozen food, sugary treats – contain more salt, sugar and fat.

Social change fuels the appetite for these unhealthy foods, says Pascal Anyole, professor of public health at the Kivu University. With the growing number of working women that don’t have time to cook, families turn to pre-prepared and industrialized meals.

Communications manager Pierre Bwingu is a so-called "yo-yo" dieter, alternating extreme weight gain and losses: “For my lunch break, I used to have two sugary drinks and one can of chicken. I weighed over 90 kilos. Today, I take one coffee in the morning, a lemon during the day and then dinner – and my weight is back to normal.”

To those who don’t like to be criticized for their eating habits, Pascal Anyolite says: “It’s not about going back, it’s about eating less and varying the kinds of foods.”

Last October, health professors of the Kivu University held a conference to raise awareness on the issue, but to no avail. In this country, there is the idea that being fat means you are rich, being thin means you are sick. – or worse, that you have the AIDS virus. Gastric bypass surgery isn’t done in Goma. Anyway, an operation is no miracle cure.

“We can operate but if patients continue to eat candy and drink sodas and alcohol, they’ll become overweight again,” says José Kayumba, the head surgeon at Goma’s general hospital.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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