Mariem Sow was a little girl when her sister Zeinabou choked to death in front of her while being force-fed camel’s milk by a family slave.
Beaten if she refused to swallow the rich diet of sweetened milk and millet porridge, Zeinabou was one of many Mauritanian girls fattened up because of an ancient belief that corpulent women make more desirable wives.
“As soon as my older sister was 12 they started force-feeding her so she would be plump by 15. They wanted to prepare her for marriage,” said Mariem, now 42, wrapped in white robes and reclining on cushions in her Nouakchott home.
The traditions of the desert are very much alive in Mauritania, an Islamic republic on the western edge of the Sahara whose people were still almost entirely nomadic when the country gained independence from France in 1960.
Wealthier families who have settled in the capital Nouakchott often keep a “khaima” -- a nomadic tent -- in the courtyard of their homes. Men and women walk the sandswept streets in flowing robes and headscarves.
Having a voluptuous wife and daughters -- well fed to survive the rigors of a desert lifestyle -- was long a visible sign of wealth and power among the country’s light-skinned Moors. It is still seen by many as a canon of beauty.
But with Lebanese satellite television broadcasting images of flat-stomached girls cavorting on beaches, and more Mauritanians traveling abroad, the vogue is starting to change.
Many Mauritanians believe it is unseemly for women to be seen engaging in any strenuous activity, but as dusk falls, chubby ladies shuffle self-consciously around the stadium in Nouakchott, their tracksuit trousers hidden under flowing “malhafa” robes.
“Sometimes I walk, sometimes I run. We come after dusk when the men have gone home,” said Fatimatou, a breathless 31-year-old, force-fed as a child but now trying to get down to 132 pounds.
“It’s no longer the modern fashion to be overweight. Women have evolved. Now they work in offices and they have to be fit.”
Big is beautiful
More than one in five women in Mauritania, which straddles black and Arab Africa, were force-fed as young girls, according to a government survey from 2001, the latest available.
“Our society has this vision that a woman has to be fat to be beautiful. It is a canon of beauty,” said Marienne Baba Sy, head of a government commission that deals with women’s issues.
“If you’re a thin woman, people assume your family don’t look after you,” she told Reuters.
The force-feeding technique known as “gavage” -- a French word more closely associated with fattening up geese to produce foie gras -- is less widely practiced than it used to be after the government launched campaigns to highlight the health risks.
But the cult of fatness has deep roots.
“My husband says he wants me to lose weight but he looks at fat women and I think he prefers going to bed with them,” said Nene Drame, 47, a writer working on a novel about force-feeding.
“The Mauritanian man is savage by nature. He likes something he can get his hands on,” she said.
“Gavage” left some women struggling to walk, not just because of their weight -- which often tops 198 pounds -- but because they were tortured as they were force-fed.
Some had their fingers or toes broken so the pain would distract them from having to swallow the milk and porridge. Others had their feet crushed by a “zayar” -- a wooden vise which would only be loosened once they ate.
“Above all it causes cardiac problems, problems during childbirth. Even from the point of view of work, obese women are less productive,” said Baba Sy.
“They get tired very quickly, out of breath. Psychologically it is very damaging. You can’t do the same things as other women -- you can’t even pray properly,” she added.
Some children were tied down while being fed and were forced to eat whatever they vomited up during the ordeal, Baba Sy said. The force-feeding often lasted years.
The 2001 survey estimated around 10 percent of women aged 15-19 were force-fed as young girls, down from 35 percent among 45-54-year-olds.
Although brutal “gavage” may be on the decline, the pressure to conform to traditional notions of beauty has given rise to a new phenomenon in which girls take pills to stimulate their appetite or animal steroids to boost their girth.
Packets of large pink pills made in Pakistan and marked “not for human consumption” are laid out on upturned boxes under trees on the edge of one of Nouakchott’s main markets.
“Normally they’re just for animals but we sell them to women too. We sell them for 50 ouguiya (20 U.S. cents) to people who buy for their animals,” said one seller, declining to be named.
“But for women we sell them for 200 ouguiya a tablet. They buy three or four at a time,” he said, just before a young teen-age couple walked up to make a purchase.
Shocked by the death of her sister, Mariem Sow has stayed slim and was even asked to apply for a modeling contract when she went to Paris after marrying a French man.
“I’d been told I didn’t fit the criteria of a Mauritanian, I was too thin, there were no gaps between my teeth. They told me it was a good job I had found a European husband,” she laughed.
“But my friends still tell me I need to eat.”