"I've been losing weight," I mentioned to a friend. He tilted his head to one side and looked concerned.
"That's terrible," Ayou said. "What is it about our country that's doing that to you?" Ayou wasn't joking. In Niger, like in most of Africa, being fat is a sign of good health. The more corpulent a woman the more attractive she's considered. But in America being fat is a sign of the excess consumption that plagues our culture, and for me being overweight was a sign that I wasn't taking care of myself or respecting my body enough to eat right.
The next day I was sitting on a bench with my 3-year-old son who was eating yogurt half-spoonful by half-spoonful. We were near the Lycée La Fontaine, a private French school where hundreds of expatriates send their children. The street outside the lycée is lined with vendors -- fruit and vegetable shacks on one side and artisans selling everything from handmade postcards to carved wooden furniture on the other. A large Tuareg man wearing a white turban and white robes sidled up to us, a heavy sack slung from his shoulder. He pulled a leather jewelry box from the sack and held it under my nose.
"Merci," I said. "I'm not shopping today."
He heaved his sack onto the bench and sat down heavily.
For some reason I didn't feel like saying yes. So I told him I was Canadian.
"Canadian?" He spoke loudly. "Listen, Mrs. Canadian! I want you to find me a fat Canadian woman." He clenched his fists and cocked his elbows, tensing his muscles in what was almost an indecent gesture to illustrate what he was looking for. "Une grosse femme! A fat woman! Not skinny like you." He appraised me disapprovingly. Then a leer spread over his corpulent face. "Do they have fat women in Canada? That's what I want!"
"And your wife?"
He waved his hand dismissively. "She won't mind."
I couldn't help giggling. The vendor looked offended. He heaved his sack back on his shoulder and got up. "Don't forget," he called as he walked away. "I want a fat Canadian lady!"
In the first month we were in Niger, before we moved into our rental house, we stayed in a missionary guesthouse. A French couple was staying there as well, missionaries from Agadez who have lived in Niger for 25 years. We hired a young woman named Nadege to help us with the housework. One day when Nadege was in the communal kitchen I heard the French missionary ask her: "Do you have chickens? Would you like this stale bread for them?" Nadege nodded and accepted the rock hard baguettes with open palms, as is the custom in Niger. Later I saw her standing up, hunched over a plate in the kitchen, dipping the bread in water and eating it furtively.
So many people in Niger are hungry. Hunger is an enemy that stalks and badgers you. Even when you shake him off he lurks in the dark corners of your life waiting to attack you again. When a married man gains weight, his wife gets approval from her family and friends -- a corpulent man is proof of a wife's ability to cook well. A zaftig young woman will catch the eye of young men while her thinner friend is overlooked. And in the midst of all this poverty and want, I am finally -- consciously -- losing the weight I gained during my third pregnancy. While Africans flee from Hunger, I court him.
Though I didn't decide to lose weight, per se, I made a radical change in my eating habits right after Christmas. During the holidays my children, husband, and I stuffed ourselves with cakes and candies and cookies and chocolate Santas. I could never eat just one. I would eat a handful and sneak the kids' leftover bits, chowing on the sticky sweet stuff until my stomach was so full my hands trembled and I felt ill.
One evening at the end of December I finally had enough. Here we were living in a country where stale bread was coveted and I -- like so many other Americans in the expatriate community, especially those who work at the American Embassy -- was overeating. I disgusted myself. So I stopped. Instead of devouring sweets indiscriminately, I allow myself candy and dessert -- as much as I want -- on Saturdays only. No more soda or cupcakes or leftover candy during the week. I've also stopped taking second helpings, which I used to do out of habit rather than hunger.
We don't have a scale in Africa but my pants are baggy and skirt bands that once left a red line around on my waist now fit comfortably. Others have noticed it as well. "Your stomach," an American neighbor said enviously the other day, "it's so flat."
"You've lost weight, are you sick?!" my friend Bouhary, who's dramatic on a quiet day, cried when he saw me last, throwing his hands in the air in distress. "You've disappeared. You've completely melted away!" Bouhary shook his head in disapproval. "What will they say when you go back to America? We need to fatten you up before you leave!"
Although living in Niger has helped me understand that our American obsession with dieting is a privilege, I realize I'm lucky to be from a country where people have too much instead of too little. I hope I can stick to my new regime. In the meantime I'm taking out a classified: Wanted: Fat Canadian Lady as Second Wife for Tuareg. And I'm glad that lady isn't me.