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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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