KIGALI – Recently, a young woman in her twenties was unable to find a chair in the conference hall of Kigali’s Chez Lando Hotel, because she was overweight. The conference was organized by the Rwandan Association of Obese People.
"I had seen photos of obese people on the Internet but I thought they were fake," says a woman attending the conference
Obesity is gaining ground in Rwanda. It mostly affects the rich, who associate over-eating with wealth, and who may also be unaware of the health consequences.
"Obesity and overweight issues constitute two serious threats for our country," warns a heart specialist from Kigali. "A growing number of young urban men and women are putting on weight. This is the reason behind the current rise in cardiovascular diseases." Although gaining weight is considered a sign of wealth in Rwandan society, the SOS Obesity organization, which has 40 members, warns that getting fat has become a major public health issue in the country.
Besides suffering from incurable diseases, in Rwanda, obese people are also discriminated against.
Rukundo, 135 kilograms (300 lbs), was asked by airport security agents to pay an extra fee. According to the custom officers, "his weight was above the norm for a passenger." An obese women also reveals that every time she gets on the bus, drivers asks her to buy two tickets. "It pains me so much that I no longer want to travel," she says.
"Obese people get picked on by everybody. At the local market, they can’t find clothes that fit," explains a member of SOS Obesity.
One obese woman says by now she's all too aware of the health consequences. "I don't dream about the future and I don't make big plans because I'm afraid of dying prematurely," she admits.
Obese people experience a slew of physical problems. "Every time I have sex, I nearly pass out afterwards," says a local obese shopkeeper.
Fat = Rich
Most SOS Obesity members admit that they used to believe that being fat meant being wealthy. When people find a job and start to make a living, they sometimes suffer from an eating frenzy and feel the need to binge on the food they were deprived of when growing up. "In such cases, people inflate like balloons," explains Samson Bimenyimana, the organization's nutritionist.
Bonaventure Rukundo, a father of six, used to weigh 90 kilos (198 pounds). "When I found a job in an NGO, I would go out every weekend with heavy drinkers. We had more than enough to eat and to drink. I put on 10 kilos (22 pounds) in only six months." He now weighs 135 kilos (298 pounds), and is worried about the consequences.
"One should avoid dishes that contain saturated fat and sugars," recommends this SOS member. Lovers of Akabenzi fried pork, fries, and other greasy foods, be warned.
It is also important to learn how to deal with emotions. According to psychologist Floride Yamuragiye, 70% of physical diseases come from negative feelings. "When someone is angry, their body releases hormones which produce substances that contribute to obesity," says the specialist.
Thirty-year-old Catherine Kabega shares this opinion. "At the age of 14, I already weighed 103 kilos (227 pounds). A psychologist told me only recently that I was mourning,” she explains.
SOS Obesity recommends that overweight people go on a strict diet and start exercising more. That's how J.M.V. Zigirinshuti went from 125 to 108 kilos (275-238 pounds) in only one year. At home, he and his relatives agreed to have 30% of their total daily food intake for breakfast, then 50% for lunch and 20% for dinner.
According to nutritionist Anastasie Mukakayumba, in Rwanda obesity affects mostly upper-class people. Among the 800 patients who have come to her office in the past eight months, a large majority came from Kigali's most expensive schools, where children under the age of 10 can sometimes weigh up to 60 kilos (132 pounds).