Obesity: A Sign of Wealth in 19th Century Africa & Now

Ideal beauty among some of the cattle-raising kingdoms of central Africa was, as discussed here, based on young girls and women consuming enormous quantities of milk.  Below are several other examples from the same area. Both of the following examples come from small kingdoms in northern Uganda, where today obesity is no longer considered a badge of beauty and wealth.

In some parts of west Africa, however, obesity of young girls is still considered a necessity, and mothers will force-feed their daughters to obtain plumpness.

The following From: Speke, John Henning – The Discovery of the Source of the Nile, 1863

The court of Rumanika (Northern Uganda)

Speke presenting heads of three white rhinos to Rumanika. Source: Princeton.edu

[I]had heard … that the wives of the king [Rumanika] and princes were fattened to such an extent that they could not stand upright, I paid my respects to Wazezeru, the king’s eldest brother … with the hope of being able to see for myself the truth of the story.

There was no mistake about it.  On entering the hut I found the old man and his chief wife sitting side by side on a bench of earth strewed over with grass, and partitioned like stalls for sleeping apartments, whilst in front of them were placed numerous wooden pots of milk, and hanging from the poles that supported the beehive-shaped hut …

I was struck with no small surprise … with the extraordinary dimensions, yet pleasing beauty, of the immoderately fat fair one his wife.  She could not rise; and so large were her arms that, between the joints, the flesh hung down like large, loose-stuffed puddings. …

The subject was turned by my inquiring what they did with so many milk-pots.  This was easily explained by Wazezeru himself, who, pointing to his wife, said, “This is all the product of those pots: from early youth upwards we keep those pots to their mouths, as it is the fashion at court to have very fat wives.”

… After a long and amusing conversation with Rumanika in the morning, I called on one of his sisters-in-law, married to an elder brother who was born before Dagara [the former king] ascended the throne.

She was another of those wonders of obesity, unable to stand excepting on all fours.  I was desirous to obtain a good view of her, and actually to measure her, and induced her to give me facilities for doing so, by offering in return to show her a bit of my naked legs and arms.  The bait took as I wished it, and after getting her to sidle and wriggle into the middle of the hut, I did as I promised, and then took her dimensions as noted here]: Round arm, 1 ft. 11 in.; chest, 4 ft. 4 in.; thigh, 2 ft. 7 in.; calf, 1 ft. 8 in.; height, 5 ft. 8 in.

All of these are exact except the height, and I believe I could have obtained this more accurately if I could have her laid on the floor. Not knowing what difficulties I should have to contend with in such a piece of engineering, I tried to get her height by raising her up. This, after infinite exertions on the part of us both, was accomplished, when she sank down again, fainting, for her blood had rushed to her head.

Meanwhile, the daughter, a lass of sixteen, sat stark-naked before us, sucking at a milk-pot, on which the father kept her at work by holding a rod in his hand, for as fattening is the first duty of fashionable female life, it must be duly enforced by the rod if necessary.  I got up a bit of flirtation with missy, and induced her to rise and shake hands with me. Her features were lovely, but her body was as round as a ball.

The Following From: Baker, Samuel W. – The Albert N’yanza, Great Basin of the Nile, and Explorations of the Nile Sources, 1865

The court of Kamrasi (Northern Uganda)

… The young girls of thirteen and fourteen that are the wives of the king are not appreciated unless extremely fat–they are subjected to a regular system of fattening in order to increase their charms; thus at an early age they are compelled to drink daily about a gallon of curded milk, the swallowing of which is frequently enforced by the whip; the result is extreme obesity.

… We asked for some butter, but could get none, as all the milk in the palace was consumed by the wives and children, drinking all day long, to make themselves immovably fat.

… Kidgwiga told us to-day that king Kamrasi’s sisters are not allowed to wed; they live and die virgins in his palace.  Their only occupation in life consisted of drinking milk, of which each

one consumes the produce daily of from ten to twenty cows, and hence they become so inordinately fat that they cannot walk.

Should they wish to see a relative, or go outside the hut for any purpose, it requires eight men to lift any of them on a litter.

So how are we to interpret the following picture – I mean, the folks in Uganda in the 19th Century had their own reasons for fattening up the women.  What social or cultural reasons do ‘we’ have for the following – or even reasons that are ‘deep-structural’?

An obese man in economy class. Source: unknownBy total contrast (with both Uganda and the States), throughout over 3000 years of history women (and men) in ancient Egypt were to be thin.  How ‘real’ this was is not clear.

Senedjem and Wife preparing fields in the afterlife – New Kingdom.

About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
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4 Responses to Obesity: A Sign of Wealth in 19th Century Africa & Now

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