Friday, July 20, 2007

The fattening rooms of Calabar

We had a conversation yesterday about women's magazines in Nigeria, and how they do not yet reflect the diversity of local aspirational ideals. Put briefly, many Nigerian women still dream of being fat, not size zero waif-like. However, their aesthetic desires are not catered to - outside of the pages of Ovation magazine. Here's an interesting little piece on a traditional pre-wedding process amongst the Efik out east: the fattening rooms of Calabar (thanks PK for this link). Also, you can download/read this pdf on the same topic. For a slightly more scholarly analysis, click here - this article links the fattening room process with mbobi - female genital mutilation.

From the last article, it seems like around 50% of Efik women even today go through this fattening/mutilation process. The picture is not a simple one of blunt patriarchy however; during the mbobi process - which can last up to a year - Calabar women are taught the art of sexual pleasure. Even today, Calabar women have a legendary reputation (feared by Nigerian women from elsewhere), resulting in phrases such as, 'if a Calabar woman cooks for you, you will never be able to leave.'


Anonymous,  9:52 am  

i am guessing "cook" is a euphemism for something else?! you may also want to reference Phat Girlz ( for the less literary inclined amongst us! PK

AFKAP of Darkness 1:25 pm  

i find it pretty alarming to read that 50% of Efik women spend time in the fattening room... during my extended stay in Calabar last summer, i was pretty surprised to find that just about every young woman i met was practically starving herself to maintain a size zero frame!

that Sexuality in Africa article is a bit weird to me, though... the author starts off talking about the Efik people of Calabar in Cross River State, then she says "I conducted my research in Uyo State, in south south Nigeria to investigate the experience of sexual satisfaction and pleasurable sexuality..."

now i'll admit that i have occasionally lost track of the hydra-like multiplication of states in Nigeria, but is there such a thing as "Uyo State"? i thought Uyo was the capital city of Akwa Ibom State. and if this research was done in Akwa Ibom, why does it draw conclusions about Efik culture rather than Ibibio?

i realize that "Calabar" is a term that is often loosely applied to just about all the enthic groups in the Cross River/Akwa Ibom area, but it is inaccurate nomenclature and since the author's own name suggests that she originates from that general area, i'd expect her to know better. it just strikes me as shoddy scholarship.

anyway, the main thing i wanted to comment on was this:

We had a conversation yesterday about women's magazines in Nigeria, and how they do not yet reflect the diversity of local aspirational ideals. Put briefly, many Nigerian women still dream of being fat, not size zero waif-like. However, their aesthetic desires are not catered to - outside of the pages of Ovation magazine.

is there any reason why women's magazines would or should reflect this perceived "fat" ideal?

i don't think Ovation caters to any real aesthetic impulse beyond that of gaudy wealth.

kemi,  2:41 pm  

And some silly women go on this suicide bid to satisfy an overblowm male ego?

Afolabi 3:06 pm  

well the taste of most modern men in nigeria isn't fat women...But I'm sure this isn't as a result of western influence. My grand dad didn't marry fat women, though they are quite voluptous

Anonymous,  3:06 pm  

Funny how in Nigeria, the men love the FAT ladies, but when the men leave for the UK, US, they all want to date Naomi Campbell, what's that all about?

Anonymous,  4:02 pm  

50% of Efik women go to fattening rooms? that's total BS. This tradition is dying out, if it isn't already dead. None of my cousins that got married did this.

I love my culture, but find this focus on such an obscure and likely dead element of it by the bbc typical of its treatment of africa and african issues

MsMak,  12:21 am  

Hmm, this reminds me of a documentary i saw a few years ago: "Monday's Girls" by Ngozi Onwurah. Followed two women (one from local village, the other a 'city babe') as they went through the fattening room process.

What i found interesting werre the other facets to the fattening room; they aren't just locked in a room and fed to bursting. They are taught to cook special meals for their man and family, how to take care of their skin, hair,and other such beauty routines, and yup, secret and special skills of the 'bedroom'.

I think the idea is still great, without all the artery clogging, fatty meals. Besides, many foods in the south-east are heavy in vegetables and seafood, which can be very healthy. In fact, it wont be a bad idea if all young women could go through this before marriage; imagine if sex-education were incorporated as's be the African version of finishishing school, no? ;o)

By the way, about "Calabar" babes knowing how to cook, i just had to mention this: some years ago in naija I taught a friend of mine from Bayelsa how to make yam porridge with vegetables, creyfish, etc. A while later, after i'd forgotten, i go to her house and she offers me same food. I am almost licking my fingers, like, "babe, this your food is tight". She laughed at me and said, "u this babe, you like to joke too much. Is it not your recipe i used?" Go figure.

Sorry this was soo long Jeremy...

Anonymous,  1:12 am  

What a rubbish piece of work! Fattening and Genital mutilation are in no way linked. There is no such thing as Uyo state! the Efiks and generally people from the 'Calabar' area (Cross River/Akwa Ibom) are about the only people in Nigeria who do not practice female circumsition, and havent done so in over 150 years.

Please, what on earth is this article saying? try not to post unverified nonsense!

Babawilly 12:36 pm  

It was good to read articles. Very interesting that some women still desire to be obese and see it as a sign of being beautiful.
Alot has been said about the cardiovascular risks of obesity, however research has shown inactivity (being unfit) to be one of the main problems of modern life. The slim unfit person has the same risks as the obese fit person.

Comb & Razor 1:52 pm  

re: this anonymous comment here--

50% of Efik women go to fattening rooms? that's total BS. This tradition is dying out, if it isn't already dead. None of my cousins that got married did this.

I love my culture, but find this focus on such an obscure and likely dead element of it by the bbc typical of its treatment of africa and african issues

i originally wanted to say something along these lines (i commented as afkap of darkness above) but i felt that i couldn't state that with any authority since i myself am not Efik (though i grew up in Calabar).

in all my years in the area, i often heard the legend of the fattening room but never ever ever saw it in action.

no... wait; i recall two or three older women showing me photos of themselves in robust fattening room for in the 1960s, but that's it.

i don't want to go so far as to suggest that it's a myth or an obscure anachronism, since obviously it does still exist today. (a friend was telling me about some documentary she watched on the subject recently... i guess it must be Onwurah's Monday's Children.) i just find it hard to believe that 50% of girls go through it, because i've never seen it.

Comb & Razor 1:58 pm  

oops... i meant Monday's Girls by Ngozi Onwurah. (and that film wasn't even about Efik culture, was it?)

Anonymous,  2:29 pm  

Hey! I love being a tight toned US 6. I work reaaally hard for my body. I run, i lift weights, am constantly looking for harder physical challenges.I'm StroooOOng and fit and look great in my clothes. It has nothing to do with magazines or "Westernness" or my guilty pleasure ,MADONNA..I also love food. I'm way healthier than when i was younger, i'm WAAAAAY more confident (can you tell?), and i would NEVER get fat for anybody. Its just idiotic, because being fat[ while it may be the desirable ideal (yeah, right)] has a lot of health problems attached: cholestorol, heart problems etc. The one thing that perhaps the efik/uyo/obudu girls who embrace the whole fattening culture thing wont suffer from, is low self esteem (from being fat), and THAT should be celebrated. But i love my body sha, o... Also, i dont know a single woman who enjoys being overweight, its not fun.


Once I read the BBC article, I wrote a post about it but am yet to post it. Nonetheless, here is a summary - there is no need for any woman to become obese to satisfy her husband's narcissism. While wifey is obese and incapable of keeping up with hubby, he will simply go pluck himself a nice young girl - not necessarily a thin one as African men tend to like women with 'meat'. He'll just get himself a smaller one that can keep up'. We need to modify traditions that have very little redeeming quality - this might be one of them ('finishing school' touches) .

Kayode 10:51 am  

I always find it interesting when educated people tend to try to judge other people's choices and culture with their own standards especially when they try to rationalize their position towards it being the global norm and acceptable society benchmark.

If someone finds pride in getting fat or even marital security by being fat; I think such subjects should be discussed not beyond the reality the cultural shock their actions presents. Appreciated perhaps, but condemnation?, that I find really disturbing.

And to a commenter. Perhaps you were referring to obesity which is not caused by fat but rather sugar.

This Calabar women are thick madam not fat madam besides. HAHAHA

dr chic,  11:55 am  

50%?!! Grossly exaggerated i think! Jeremy, get your facts right! I'm not Efik,but my mother is.Honestly do you think anyone has the time to spend A WHOLE YEAR, eating, learning the art of sexual pleasure and then getting her clitoris hacked off at the end?

Anonymous,  5:37 pm  

sorry if i posted this more than once. but to comb and razor, this is the anon you responded to. thanks for the name of the documentary, ill be checking it out.

to the last poster, the circumcision of the girls took place when they were young, soon after birth and before they went into the fattening house. it's proper name is ufok nkuh, house of seclusion.

Anonymous,  9:08 pm  

Do Yorubas cut? If so, how frequently.

Any Yoruba ladies out there: has this happened to you, or your sisters, mothers, aunts, grannies?

I'm a Yoruba guy and, as you know, these things are simply never discussed.

dr chic,  12:24 pm  

To the guy who asked if Yoruba's circumcise,yes they do.A very high perceentage infact,mostly in Oyo,Osun and Ondo States.I actually know people who have been and these are young women in their twenties.

Anonymous,  8:42 pm  

I'm Yoruba from Oyo and very much in tune with my culture. It is not true that a high percentage of our women are circumcised. I am not circumcised and very (VERY) few people in my village are. I'v inquired about other Oyo villages and the same applies. I wonder where people like Dr. Chic get their facts from.

curious anonymous,  9:22 pm  

"I'm Yoruba from Oyo and very much in tune with my culture."

Are you a woman?

I'd love to hear about this from Yoruba women.

Anonymous,  1:05 am  

Yes, Mr. Curious. I am a woman.

Anonymous,  1:16 am  

I am a yoruba woman from Oyo state. I was cut and so were my 5 sisters. I know quite a number of yoruba women who have been cut. I don't know whether this is done by other tribes. I also realise that many of us only seems to admit it to each other and not to those who haven't gone through the experience. And before anyone says it is done by backward villagers, my parents were both highly educated and my mother insisted on it. She had gone through it herself and many of her friends had as well.

So I beg anon, don't wallow in ignorance. It is actually quite common. more than you'd think. I remember Jeremy posting something to that effect a while back. Go check the stats.


curious anonymous,  3:50 pm  

Tayo, thanks. Anyone else? I've lived in Lagos all my life and I've heard very little about this. But I had a suspicion it was happening. This might be a good forum for people to tell some of their stories anonymously. Any Egba women? Any Ijebus? Any Ondos in the house?

Anonymous,  10:18 pm  

Tayo, I'm sorry to tell you that you're wrong. I have conducted studies on women from Oyo, Ondo and Ogun. Sure, some communities cut but it is not true that it is that common. Jeremy posted something some time back but go and find empirical facts. Female circumcision is more common among some Efik communities than with Yoruba women. I have more sisters than you have (and tens of female cousins). None of us is cut (even if it is true that some people in my village cut, MORE people do not). Female circumcision with the Yoruba is more uncommon than it is common. I have only one Yoruba friend who is cut and she is from Osun State.

Get your facts right, not only because you and your 5 sisters were cut. Don't misinform the world.

Anonymous,  10:24 pm  

And before you say it's he new generation that is not cutting, none of my grandmother's daughters were cut. My mother was not cut (and my grandmother didn't go to school). I agree with you that people choose among the Yoruba and many people have for generations (education notwithstanding) CHOSEN NOT to circumcise their daughters. That some few families in a whole community choose to cut is not enough to make it a predominant Yoruba practice. So, Tayo and Mr. Curious, e lo se iwadi yin daadaa.

curious anonymous,  12:59 am  

Ibeere ni mo beere o. Ema so di ja! Ese gaani fun alaye ti ese yi.

Anonymous,  8:07 pm  

Here are the stats on FGM. I think more people need to be enlightened on this issue.

are top states where FGM is practised.

No need to argue, read the facts.

BTW, Ijebus aren't known to practise FGM.I can't speak for the rest of Ogun state.


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