JTHE FAT IS IN THE FIRE: Ghana’s Twittersphere has declared war on the New York Times over an article that accused West Africans of flirting with life-threatening obesity by choosing fatty Western fast food over traditional, healthy meals.
The article links Ghana’s 30 years of rising diabetes and heart disease rates to the influx of westernised fast food. It asserts that eating western junk food is a status symbol here and that wealthy people want to eat pizzas and Colonel Sanders’ KFC, rather than indigenous foodstuffs.
Worst and most insulting of all, the author – not a visiting Westerner but the NYT’s respected resident West African bureau chief – introduces a conversation with President Akufo-Addo with the words “like many of his countrymen, the round-faced president himself is overweight”.
To casually insult the 73-year-old president (whose fad diet days are surely far behind him) in an article about obesity is like penning a serious article about American foreign policy and casually remarking that “President Trump, like many of his countrymen, is a feeble-minded racist”. It’s a lazy, tenuous connection. It is offensive and does nothing to encourage further exploration of the article.
For an American newspaper to decry obesity in Ghana as commonplace takes the richest of Rich Tea biscuits. I’ve been to Florida. I’ve seen families of four so big they should never be allowed to ride an elevator together for their own safety.
A storm has swept through the Ghanaian twittersphere over the past 24 hours in response to the article, co-written by the New York Times’s West Africa bureau chief Dionne Searcey. Social media has gone ballistic: many tweets call for a retraction and a public apology to the people of Ghana. Popular broadcaster and journalist Nana Aba led the charge at her well-followed Twitter ‘home’ @thenanaaba
Not that the NYT feature doesn’t have some reasonable points to make: I’d be crazy to deny that better-off people in the capital, Accra, tend to get excited about the shiny, American-style pizza, hamburger and fried chicken joints that have sprung up at shopping malls and filling stations. There is certainly a danger that Ghana could sleepwalk into the obesity timebomb that ticks away in America by copying US dietary habits.
But the article misses the mark when it takes a swipe at the consumption of palm oil, banned in KFC America but a staple in Ghana where it has always been consumed in its unrefined, highly nutritious state.
Then there’s the assertion that since food shortages in the early 1980s “girth can be a welcome sight here”. But here is no fetishisation of fat in Ghana. Haven’t you noticed that the elite football leagues in Europe are rapidly filling with West African players?
In every big city squads of young men with toned, muscular torsos work out together. The gym craze in Accra means gyms catering to the middle-class outnumber all the KFCs and Pizza Huts many times over. Outside the cities, hard manual work is still the norm for lean, wiry men and women.
As for fat being fashionable, I’ve never met anyone in Ghana who associates conspicuous consumption with prosperity. And eating to shed memories of the famines of the 1980s? Don’t swallow that myth: the median age here is 21. Most of the population were not born during the years of food rationing.
Incidentally, we have a self-regulating system that controls weight gain which the West would do well to copy; we travel by tro-tro, local mini-buses which weave hazardously through terrifying traffic packed with as many fare-paying passengers as regulations permit. And that doesn’t leave room for fatties!
No obese person can fit into a tro-tro, and anyone bigger than normal has to pay double in a passenger taxi. Unlike you westerners with your ‘fat-shaming’ sensitivity, in Ghana it’s more like “Eh! That fat auntie is not getting in MY car!”
But the NYT writer’s disappointment that Akufo-Addo is not doing more to staunch the flow of saturated fats pouring into his country isn’t softened even when he tells her of his plans to expand health insurance and increase awareness of healthy eating habits.
It is a typical western ignorance of the facts of life in an emerging country like ours: Nana Akufo-Addo is the President of Ghana, not the President of the Posher-Parts-of-Accra.
Malaria, cholera, yellow fever and infant mortality are the primary concerns all over this country, Obesity is not pinging loudly on the radar yet.
The minimum wage is 150 cedis a month, while the “affordable” KFC Streetwise 2 meal mentioned in the article costs 16 cedis without a drink. To put that into perspective, it’s like a Londoner on minimum wage paying £80-90 for a Happy Meal.
If the poor people of Ghana are getting fatter, they aren’t doing it at KFC.