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Where Fat Is a Mark of Beauty

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Margaret Bassey Ene currently has one mission in life: gaining weight.

The Nigerian teenager has spent every day since early June in a “fattening room” specially set aside in her father’s mud-and-thatch house. Most of her waking hours are spent eating bowl after bowl of rice, yams, plantains, beans and gari, a porridge-like mixture of dried cassava and water.

After three more months of starchy diet and forced inactivity, Margaret will be ready to reenter society bearing the traditional mark of female beauty among her Efik people: fat.

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In contrast to many Western cultures where thin is in, many culture-conscious people in the Efik and other communities in Nigeria’s southeastern Cross River state hail a woman’s rotundity as a sign of good health, prosperity and allure.

The fattening room is at the center of a centuries-old rite of passage from maidenhood to womanhood. The months spent in pursuit of poundage are supplemented by daily visits from elderly matrons who impart tips on how to be a successful wife and mother. Nowadays, though, girls who are not yet marriage-bound do a tour in the rooms purely as a coming-of-age ceremony. And sometimes, nursing mothers return to the rooms to put on more weight.

“The fattening room is like a kind of school where the girl is taught about motherhood,” said Sylvester Odey, director of the Cultural Center Board in Calabar, capital of Cross River state. “Your daily routine is to sleep, eat and grow fat.”

Like many traditional African customs, the fattening room is facing relentless pressure from Western influences. Health campaigns linking excess fat to heart disease and other illnesses are changing the eating habits of many Nigerians, and urban dwellers are opting out of the time-consuming process.

Effiong Okon Etim, an Efik village chief in the district of Akpabuyo, said some families cannot afford to constantly feed a daughter for more than a few months. That compares with a stay of up to two years, as was common earlier this century, he said.

But the practice continues partly because “people might laugh at you because you didn’t have money to allow your child to pass through the rite of passage,” Etim said. What’s more, many believe an unfattened girl will be sickly or unable to bear children.

Etim, 65, put his two daughters in a fattening room together when they were 12 and 15 years old, but some girls undergo the process as early as age 7, after undergoing the controversial practice of genital excision.

Bigger Is Better, According to Custom

As for how fat is fat enough, there is no set standard. But the unwritten rule is the bigger the better, said Mkoyo Edet, Etim’s sister.

“Beauty is in the weight,” said Edet, a woman in her 50s who spent three months in a fattening room when she was 7. “To be called a ‘slim princess’ is an abuse. The girl is fed constantly whether she likes it or not.”

In Margaret’s family, there was never any question that she would enter the fattening room.

“We inherited it from our forefathers; it is one of the heritages we must continue,” said Edet Essien Okon, 25, Margaret’s stepfather and a language and linguistics graduate of the University of Calabar. “It’s a good thing to do; it’s an initiation rite.”

His wife, Nkoyo Effiong, 27, agreed: “As a woman, I feel it is proper for me to put my daughter in there, so she can be educated.”

Effiong, a mother of five, spent four months in a fattening room at the age of 10.

Margaret, an attractive girl with a cheerful smile and hair plaited in fluffy bumps, needs only six months in the fattening room because she was already naturally plump, her stepfather said.

During the process, she is treated as a goddess, but the days are monotonous. To amuse herself, Margaret has only an instrument made out of a soda bottle with a hole in it, which she taps on her hand to play traditional tunes.

Still, the 16-year-old says she is enjoying the highly ritualized fattening practice.

“I’m very happy about this,” she said, her belly already distended over the waist of her loincloth. “I enjoy the food, except for gari.”

Day in, day out, Margaret must sit cross-legged on a special stool inside the secluded fattening room. When it is time to eat, she sits on the floor on a large, dried plantain leaf, which also serves as her bed. She washes down the mounds of food with huge pots of water and takes traditional medicine made from leaves and herbs to ensure proper digestion.

As part of the rite, Margaret’s face is decorated with a white, claylike chalk.

“You have to prepare the child so that if a man sees her, she will be attractive,” Chief Etim said.

Tufts of palm leaf fiber, braided and dyed red, are hung around Margaret’s neck and tied like bangles around her wrists and ankles. They are adjusted as she grows.

Typically, Margaret would receive body massages using the white chalk powder mixed with heavy red palm oil. But the teen said her parents believe the skin-softening, blood-stimulating massages might cause her to expand further than necessary.

Margaret is barred from doing her usual chores or any other strenuous physical activities. And she is forbidden to receive visitors, save for the half a dozen matrons who school Margaret in the etiquette of the Efik clan.

They teach her such basics as how to sit, walk and talk in front of her husband. And they impart wisdom about cleaning, sewing, child care and cooking--Efik women are known throughout Nigeria for their chicken pepper soup, pounded yams and other culinary creations.

“They advise me to keep calm and quiet, to eat the gari, and not to have many boyfriends so that I avoid unwanted pregnancy,” Margaret said of her matron teachers. “They say that unless you have passed through this, you will not be a full-grown woman.”

What little exercise Margaret gets comes in dance lessons. The matrons teach her the traditional ekombi, which she will be expected to perform before an audience on the day she emerges from seclusion--usually on the girl’s wedding day, Etim said.

But Okon said his aim is to prepare his stepdaughter for the future, not to marry her off immediately. Efik girls receive more education than girls in most parts of Nigeria, and Okon hopes Margaret will return to school and embark on a career as a seamstress before getting married.

Weddings Also Steeped in Tradition

Once she does wed, Margaret will probably honor southeastern Nigeria’s rich marriage tradition. It begins with a letter from the family of the groom to the family of the bride, explaining that “our son has seen a flower, a jewel, or something beautiful in your family, that we are interested in,” said Josephine Effah-Chukwuma, program officer for women and children at the Constitutional Rights Project, a law-oriented nongovernmental organization based in the Nigerian commercial capital of Lagos.

If the girl and her family consent, a meeting is arranged. The groom and his relatives arrive with alcoholic beverages, soft drinks and native brews, and the bride’s parents provide the food. The would-be bride’s name is never uttered, and the couple are not allowed to speak, but if all goes well, a date is set for handing over the dowry. On that occasion, the bride’s parents receive about $30 as a token of appreciation for their care of the young woman. “If you make the groom pay too much, it is like selling your daughter,” Effah-Chukwuma said. Then, more drinks are served, and the engagement is official.

On the day of the wedding, the bride sits on a specially built wooden throne, covered by an extravagantly decorated canopy. Maidens surround her as relatives bestow gifts such as pots, pans, brooms, plates, glasses, table covers--everything she will need to start her new home. During the festivities, the bride changes clothes three times.

The high point is the performance of the ekombi, in which the bride twists and twirls, shielded by maidens and resisting the advances of her husband. It is his task to break through the ring and claim his bride.

Traditionalists are glad that some wedding customs are thriving despite the onslaught of modernity.

Traditional weddings are much more prevalent in southeastern Nigeria than so-called white weddings, introduced by colonialists and conducted in a church or registry office.

“In order to be considered married, you have to be married in the traditional way,” said Maureen Okon, a woman of the Qua ethnic group who wed seven years ago but skipped the fattening room because she did not want to sacrifice the time. “Tradition identifies a people. It is important to keep up a culture. There is quite a bit of beauty in Efik and Qua marriages.”


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