Pictures from Senegal

Wednesday, April 28

Weight Loss

Shall I dare talk about the elephant in the room? Or rather the elephant that has left the building. Yes, I speak of my weight loss. If you’re a volunteer in country it’s about to get awkwardly personal. As for my friends and family, it’s never hard to admit flaws, but I hope it’ll be easier now that I’m doing better. So here goes…

Let’s call a spade a spade; before I came to Senegal I was overweight and disgusted with myself. A part of me knew I would have the opportunity to change my eating habits and revamp my nutritional intake. I go so far as to admit it’s one of the many reasons I came, though I never did at the time. In the end it wasn’t all too significant- just part of the pros. I went so far as to pack away a few sets of cloths in various sizes in anticipation of my return, and donated the rest to charity. There exist pictures of me from a shower and wedding I went to last July, and even at my best I felt horribly ugly on the outside.

Though, since this is full disclosure, from the moment I landed in Africa, weight has been one of the last things on my mind. Adjusting to heat, bugs, language, culture, and new types of food… all of it was very distracting to say the least. After a month it occurred to me that some of my pants were a bit loose. Two months in I confirmed having lost 20 pounds.

It was a combination of a lot of things, I’m sure. I had so many cases of diarrhea in the beginning it became a joke with my host family. It got to a point where I would run out mid sentence, come back to finish the sentence and keep going with the conversation- not even bothering to explain where I’d run off to. I spent a whole week in bed with a flu (vomiting and diarrhea), plus a head cold (serious congestion), and creeping eruption (worm infection under the skin that made my foot itch like no other). I lived on oral rehydration salts, bread and beans, and fruit that week.

Then there’s my battle with the fish. It became painfully apparent that I would have to come up with a better solution to my total aversion to fish. Every time we ate it, I threw it up. The taste alone started to make me gag- even if it was just eating rice and veggies prepared or sitting in the same bowl. I never ate fish in the States for this same reason, but I swear it’s more pungent here. When training was over I self diagnosed myself allergic and told my permanent host family I would make a separate meal for myself whenever the family was having dishes with fish. These days I’ll eat a salad, egg sandwiches, soup, millet porridge, or pasta when fish is on the menu. And yeah, I’m kind of a disgrace to other volunteers because I live in a coastal town that is very abundant with fish. Get over it.

Of course, there’s a whole other side to this story. The food itself wasn’t appetizing in the beginning. While I almost cried the first night we had pasta (not thinking it existed here- evidence of my naivety), I was confused by everything else. Onions are literally a part of every dish except millet porridges; they were driving me nuts. Meat is cut so as to include the fatty bits (for flavor?) and I thus I didn’t eat much of it either. Veggies and meat in general are fairly expensive compared to rice, pasta, and millet so there are typically only one or two carrots, potatoes, okra, or bitter tomatoes to be shared amongst the family. Sauces are colors I’d never imagined sauce could be, and made of leaves I didn’t think one could eat. And when you take all that away, you’re left with rice. Honestly, I got bored of rice… and it didn’t seem to fill me either.

There’s a small factor of timing of meals. Breakfast is early, 7a. Lunch is later than I was used to… at 2p. This being right in the heat of the day, it’s still hard sometimes to work up an appetite in the cool season. So you can imagine the difficulty back in the hot rainy season. Dinner is at 10p or later. Most days I nearly fall asleep waiting for it. It’s hard to eat when you’re half asleep because you have no energy because you hardly eat. Confusing, no?

Lastly, a few words should be given to the endless walking that became necessary to get around in Senegal. If walking in the heat were easy, adding the ever changing sandy terrain made it a bit more difficult. Admittedly, I feel constantly dehydrated, but that can’t have had too much of an impact after the first week. So you see, portion control, lack of processed foods, change in food substance, illness, meal timing, and walking all contributed to the weight loss program that is Peace Corps (eat that, Jenny Craig!).

In the beginning losing a lot of weight (and somewhat quickly) was a cultural problem. My host family during training, under traditional customs, was embarrassed, even ashamed, that their guest was losing weight. It was a sign that I was not being treated properly nor given enough food as the guest. They would try to force me to finish whatever was left in a bowl. And what’s worse, to continue to eat after throwing up… even if it made me do it again. I kept trying to explain that I was happy to lose weight, and that it was a good thing in my culture, something I needed, but in a place where large women are traditionally seen as beautiful my explanation was lost anyone listening. I felt like a failure both in the states, and now in Senegal. Awesome. They eventually started to come around. Especially when I told them how happy my Dad was, and even went so far as to say ‘thank you’ to them on his behalf.

These days things aren’t as dramatic as in the beginning. In the last 6 months I’ve lost another 30 pounds. I know it seems like a lot, but trust me I had it too loose… and probably still more if I work at it. I eat because I have to or its time, not because I’m excited about meals like I used to be in the States. Admittedly though, I’ve started to enjoy the food. Onions no longer annoy me. There are meals I love and can’t wait to eat when I see them being prepared. There are others I don’t care for, but I’m eating more and more of them each time. I also enjoy that none of the cloths I brought here fit anymore. I still wear the shirts, but I have had to import or purchase/ produce everything from the waist down… because the old stuff was falling off, literally. And who doesn’t love a slimmer shape? In fact, my host brother saw those pictures from last July not too long ago and was astonished that it was even me. He told me how good I looked now, and even gave me a hug and words of congratulations. That’s kind of a big deal in a country lacking PDA and words of encouragement (disapproval is much more prevalent).

I don’t know if my problem was what I was eating, or how much of it I was eating… but I’m changing those habits every day here. I’d like to tell you I’ve noticed how much more energy I have, or how great I feel, or how I don’t get short of breath after long walks… but in truth none of that has changed from State side. I’m fairly certain it’s the lack of proper nutrients and climate. I’m getting enough nutrients to survive and I’m generally used to the climate, but it’s not a perfect world. Some days I wonder if I’ll ever be 100% here. And then I push those thoughts out and enjoy the ride that I’m on now. A slimmer, healthier person is only one aspect of the better person I hope to be by the end of my service.

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