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      Jesus, Africa, Really?

      January 6, 2010
      Jonathan Smith

      By Jonathan Smith

      Deputy Editor

      Do you know what "leblouh" is? No? Well prepare to leblarf. Leblouh is the traditional Mauritanian practice of force-feeding women until they are big and beautiful/large and lascivious. While we have been longstanding proponents of the burgeoning "Yes Fat Chicks" movement, we tend to draw the line short of force-feeding 5-year-old girls camel milk until they ralph and then using wooden rolling pins to give them stretchmarks. Mauritania is a poor country even by African standards. A fifth of the population lives on less than $1.25 per day. The country's also historically nomadic (90% circa its 1960 independence from France), which may explain why certain Mauritanians have taken Western Africa's traditional preference for hefty frames to the nauseating extreme. When the better part of your day consists of walking around in the desert, what could be more appealing than someone who's visibly rich enough to sit in the same place for months at a time? It's basically the same rationale behind Western men's fixation on bodies that can only be achieved through a steady regiment of cocaine and gym time. The luxurious connotations of fatty-fatty-boombalattyness are so entrenched in Mauritanian culture that old poets even regularly referred to the tebtath (stretchmarks) of their beloved as "my lady's jewels." A lot of older Mauritanian ladies still subscribe to the belief that being plump is the only way to land a decent husband, and are the heavy hitters in the fight for keeping the tradition of leblouh alive. In a study conducted in 2007 by the Social Solidarity Association, 70% of Mauritanians over forty thought leblouh was necessary for marriage. Not just "helpful" mind you, necessary. As bad as that number sounds, lately it's been getting even worse. Mauritania was making good headway with health awareness campaigns targeted at leblouh until August of 2008, when a military coup allowed General Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz to seize power from elected president Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi. The General and his crowd are big on what they term "a return to traditional values" and what we'd term "the resurgence of horrific force-feeding camps for little girls that Mauritanians ironically call 'Fat Farms'." Girls at these farms are forced to eat to the verge of popping, and when they vomit all the camel’s milk (seriously), millet, eggs, and butter all over their clothes and the floor the “fatteners” (as employees of the farms are known) make them eat it. Their vomit. If that’s not enough to give you the fantods, other popular leblouh tactics include rolling sticks on the young girls thighs to break down tissue, making them fatter faster, and zayer, the practice of placing pieces of wood on either side of a toe and squeezing the shit out of them when the girl says she’s full. The Association of Women Heads of Households has played a big part in educating the public to the awfulness of leblouh, but fears that the new military junta in its desire to return both Mauritanian men and women to their more traditional roles, is fostering a fat-farm friendly environment. As Fatimata M’baye told The Guardian recently. “I've never managed to bring a case in defense of a force-fed child. The politicians are scared of questioning their own traditions.” Despite the new government's laissez-faire approach to prosecuting leblouh, there are still a number of young urbanites who aren't down with the practice. The farms are mostly in rural areas, and it is more common for mothers in the countryside to practice leblouh with their daughters. The hospitals in Mauritania get hundreds of patients each week with problems ranging from heart disease to atherosclerosis. Seeing these patients come in on stretchers (as well as having closer access to medical professionals and just a wider range of contacts outside their family) could explain the far lower prevalence of obesity in Mauritania's urban areas. It may also be the only way left for groups like the AWHH to dislodge their countrymen's long-held belief that the best way to a man's heart is repeatedly through a five-year-old girl's stomach. JONATHAN SMITH

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