Malawians love to call you fat. It’s meant as a compliment, being called fat means you’re looking healthy, happy, and aren’t poor or suffering from illness. People say it whether you’re big or small, gaining or loosing. Still, every time I hear it I feel like someone’s stabbing me in my (apparently) very big gut.
Some ways I’ve been called fat.
“You are fat madam”
“You have increased”
“You are too fat for this bike-taxi, you must pay for two”
“You are looking medium”
“You must be happy in Malawi now because you are looking fat”
“I am not saying you are fat, but if you fell you would make a large sound”
It’s an unfair reality of Peace Corps is that men loose weight and women gain it. This is because women receive unwanted attention when the exercise and because the all carb diet doesn’t do good things to the fairer sex. I knew a PCV who ate a full cup of dry rice with every meal and still had trouble keeping weight on, while the 1/3 cup I take gave me a bootie.
My weight has ricocheted through the 130s during my service, dipping far below when I’ve had dysentery and skyrocketed when I’ve been in town during Peace Corps trainings. At COS I’ll be a little thinner than I was when I arrived, but that’s only because of very conscious effort. I don’t want to come back from doing food security work looking “fat fat”
So here are the reasons ladies get curvy in Malawi.
- Carbs Carbs Carbs
If you haven’t taken nsima, you haven’t eaten. In Malawi people eat nsima, a patty made out of milled maize with the nutritional value of a brown paper bag, Nsima belly is a thing. And even if you’re not eating local, vegetables and proteins are hard to find in the village. You’re lucky if you can find a few mustard greens and a tomato to boil together to go with your rice and choice of beans or soya pieces. Malawi was the first place where I felt the effects of malnutrition. I can physically feel myself get stronger when I eat a carrot. And when you’re not eating well you feel hungrier, which means you want more carbs, which means you get fat. Pick a carb, any carb.
Everything is shared in Malawi, especially food. Portions are always made with extra nsmia for unexpected visitors, the food is eaten with hands from a communal bowl, and it’s incredibly rude to turn down food from your host. Doing environmental extension work in the community means I work with a lot of different people, which means I take nsima at a lot of different houses. It’s one of my favorite things about Malawian culture, and also one of the things that’s given me lovehandles.
3. Got time to kill, why not make a snack?
Unless you find work to do, there’s little to be done in Peace Corps. It’s entirely self-determined, nobody is going to make you leave your house unless you make yourself. These idle hours lend themselves to unnecessary snacking. Did I need to eat an entire jumbo of Kamba Puffs in one serving? I know they’re just food flavored (seriously, the label says “food flavoring!) packing peanuts. But eating them in bed and watching torrented episodes of Gilmore Girls is still one of my favorite things.
4. Malawians fry the crap out of everything
In Chitonga the word for “delicious” literally translates to “to be fried”. There is little spice in Malawian cooking, everything is just made with tons of oil and salt. When you buy chippies or fried chicken in the market, they dump a little hot oil in your plastic bag for good measure. Eggs are literally deep fried into patties. Fried chicken is a delicacy. And I’m not even going to complain about this one, it’s freaking delicious.
5. Eating your feelings.
Never in my past life would I walk into a grocery store and come out with multiple chocolate bars. Candy was never a part of my life, but in the village you crave junk. If it came in a care package it’s in my mouth, regardless if I really enjoy it or not. It’s easy to use food as a coping mechanism, and it’s not the worst one out there. My go to is chocolate and bananas, it tastes like America.
6. Working out is hard in the village
Malawians don’t work out, they labor in the fields. Exercising just isn’t a part of Malawian culture, and because athletic clothing is so much more reveling than the long flowing skirts mandated for women, running in the village attracts a lot of unwanted attention. This comes from men, women, and the hoards of screaming children that will inevitably find you and follow you for miles and miles. Working out in the house isn’t much better, it’s a million degrees and there isn’t much space to move. So in the end it’s a lot easier to curl up with a book in the hammock. Sorry Jillian Micheals.
7. Town Binges
Whenever you do manage to crawl out of the village, all you want to do is eat. And as there is typically a lot of PCVs in town at once you tend to eat a lot and drink a lot. I’ve spent a large chunk of my living allowance on Joy’s Stir Fried Noodles and Carlsburg Specials.
8. Can’t take the heat
As fun as it is to start an m’baula every time you want to eat, it does get a little old after awhile. Actually it’s not as bad as it sounds, it does become habit. But during hot season, when temperatures soar up to 105 with 100% humidity the last thing you want to do is stoop over a burning fire. It’s a lot easier to down a box of cookies and cry naked in bed spooning your 5L Camelback.
In Malawi every 1.5 hour training session is ended with a teabreak. But it’s so much more than tea. You’ve got your option of coke, sprite, tea, coffee, donuts, chicken wings, chicken gizzards, and assorted cakes. Do you really need three chicken wings between large buffet style meals? Maybe not, but this doesn’t stop PCVS from going ham at every Peace Corps sponsored event. I once saw a girl eat 15 chicken gizzards in our 10 minute break. Kudos to her.
10. You learn to reevaluate beauty
It’s cliche but true: you learn that there are more important things than external beauty when you’re in the village. I haven’t worn makeup in two years, I wash my hair once a week in a bucket, my acne is next level, and my clothing choices revolve around what covers the shape of my legs best, and yet I’ve never felt more at peace in my body. There are just so many more important things to think about.
So for any PCVs or soon to be PCVs out there reading this, don’t sweat the weight and just enjoy yourself. You can drink all the green smoothies you want stateside, but you only get two years of nsima.