I got asked a good question about our life in Africa, "What is it about your African lifestyle that slims you down?" My first steps on African soil were 11 years ago this week, so in some ways I have forgotten what is different here.
The rain waters seep into this red clay soil, and the African way of life seeps into my own.
There are several things about life here that encourage weight loss (though to be fair I have to note it doesn't work like this for everyone*): more walking, more sweating, more stress, less favorite foods, etc. If I want to eat pizza for instance, I make the crust from flour/oil/milk, I make the sauce from tomatoes/onions/spices, I grate the cheese, I cut up the fresh pineapple. It is all very 'locavore' and usually very fresh, but it is also all very much work! Because of the work it takes, and the core of laziness I have, I snack less. No quick easy munchies here. Farmer's market without all the prepared goodies.
It seems the weight is proportional to the level of civilization you live at. In discussing this with colleagues, it was commonly expected one would gain the 'furlough 15' (15 extra pounds) by returning to the US. I know some people have avoided this with care, but if one weighed 120 in the US (don't we wish), then in an African city one weighed 110 on average, and out in a village they weighed 100. Here we are somewhere between a city and a village.
In the US I can visit Starbucks for a chat, drive through any number of fast-food restaurants, and even the foods I put on the table are processed and manufactured often so that tortillas are not just wheat and oil. There are more options and there are yummy options and they are all filled with little things to make them MORE yummy.
In the big African cities I have seen, there are several meat options, always fruits and veggies and sometimes even imported varieties (how much is a real, crisp apple or few blackberries worth to me??). There are fewer 'fillers' in foods (but then your bread gets stale more quickly too) and fewer packaged foods. There are restaurants, but they are not drive-thru and don't have huge luscious extravagance. The richest thing I ever splurged on was 5 handmade spinach raviolis in a heavenly gorgonzola cream sauce in Kenya (but the restau was owned and operated by an Italian).
In the few rural areas we have lived, extravagance is eating meat or using oil. In one place salt and sugar were even a splurge for people. The place I lost the most weight (and even heard of a colleague losing almost 40 lbs in one month!) was in the northern hills of Cameroon where we lived with a Cameroonian host family. They splurged and made us meat sauce to eat with our corn mush. Most families we know eat one large meal in the evening and cold leftovers or porridge for breakfast (usually nothing for lunch). Joel was just a few months old, nursing like crazy in the heat and I had him strapped to my back as we hiked up and down the hills visiting friends and churches and clearing their fields. It was physically exhausting just to accomplish basic life. Now why on earth was I ever enamored with Little House on the Prairie??! Hauling water. Scrubbing laundry. Hiking up. Hiking down. Hiking some more. I still think Jenny Craig really could be on to something with the 'corn mush diet'...
It is no wonder we have colleagues who have to work at keeping enough weight on. Add in a few tropical illnesses or a bout with malaria, and you start to think about how to gain weight.
And so it goes... weight = wealth here.
*For some, who would benefit from all the fat-free, non-fat, diet soda options in the US, they actually gain weight overseas where carbs are ever-present and diet soda non-existent.