Monday, March 5, 2012

Burkina FaTso

Editor's Note: The following post is written as a humorous exposé of weight loss/gain in Africa. James overstates things from time to time -- he can be a bit of a drama queen. If you are offended by muffin tops, mystery meat, or Jason Alexander, please read no further. 
If not, enjoy the latest from Burkina!

Forget South Beach. Forget Atkins. Between the sweltering heat, boring food, and near constant gastro-intestinal issues, Africa should be the best weight-loss plan on Earth. So before departing, I went on a whirlwind tour of farewell dinners and eating binges. A third helping? Yes, please. Two desserts? Why not!? A 10,000 calorie burger? I am moving to Africa, after all.

Once I arrived, I became even more convinced of the magic African diet. Every male between the ages of 18 and 45 resembles Brad Pitt in Fight Club. Gorgeous, lean muscles. 6 pack abs. 2% body fat. It’s amazing how endless hours in the field can transform a body. I thought it must be only a matter of time before I too look like them.

I could not have been more wrong. After ten months in Africa my body more close
ly resembled the rotund Jason Alexander. What little muscle I had quickly disappeared without a
high-protein diet coupled with a weightlifting regimen.
My chest and arms withered away and my body’s jiggle coefficient has steadily increased as my mid-section has become ever doughier. Poke me and I’ll giggle like Poppin’ Fresh...

After some thought, I’ve come to a few conclusions
(read, excuses) regarding the dreadful and disgusting state of my body.

The food options in West Africa are a carb-lover’s dream. Tô, or boiled corn flour, is the national dish. It’s incredibly cheap, popular, and lacks any nutritional value. Tô assumes the form of whatever receptacle in which it’s cooked and can be best described as corn Jell-O. Rice and pasta are the next most popular meal options and Burkinabé will even add spaghetti as a topping to rice. Carb on carb delight.

Quality protein is extremely hard to find. Goat, sheep, cows, and chickens roam everywhere, but they aren’t the wonderful Tyson hormone-injected variety that Americans enjoy. African animals forage all day for food and (at least in our neighborhood) must dodge mangos (thrown by me from the porch). Different cuts of meat are a completely foreign idea to Burkina’s “butchers.” Most meat is simply hacked apart by a dull machete. Imagine trying to eat your rice with peanut sauce dish and getting bits of intestines, bones and other mystery chunks.
If you’re lucky enough to find a meat vendor, so many questions come to mind it’s an immediate turn-off. How long has this meat been sitting outside in 100 degree heat? Why are there so many flies on it? Is this goat meat? Or sheep? Beef? Could be dog. You just can never be sure.

For generations this scene has transpired at the dinner table: An American youth didn’t finish his/her dinner and is getting up from the table. Well-intentioned parents then yell, “Finish your dinner! There are starving children in Africa.” Thanks, mom. Because of your conditioning, I eat everything in sight and the starving African children you referenced are literally right outside my door.
If you can accurately determine exactly how much food will satisfy your hunger, there’s no problem. But what if there are leftovers? There is no electricity in village and therefore no refrigerator. The extreme temperatures ensure that any remaining food will be covered in mold by morning. We can and do give leftovers to our neighbors. However, they  don’t always like the foreign dishes we make. And if they can recognize the ingredients, it may blow our cover as the poor volunteers living and working amongst them. Pasta is a rare luxury and canned vegetables or tuna are completely unaffordable for our neighbors. With those things in mind, I end up eating that second serving; it’s a shame to let it go to waste.

I came to Burkina with the mindset that I must eat everything in sight just to keep weight on. That idea was then reinforced by the Peace Corps medical staff’s motto “eat when you can eat.” As I reflect on their advice, I’m not sure it holds true for volunteers who live 10 kilometers from real cheese, butter, and cold beer/Coke. Whenever I leave village, it’s a free-for-all. Doctor’s orders, after all.

Exercising in Africa is difficult. Although I’ll occasionally work in the fields, I don’t do it nearly enough. I’ll harvest rice with the men, but after ten minutes of what might be considered hard work, the same phrases are inevitably uttered (although not in English):

“You must be tired, go sit down.”
“The sun is hot and you’ll burn. Get in the shade.”
“Get the white dude some water!”

American-style, twentieth century exercise, like running for example, is rarely observed in Burkina. It’s an unfortunate reality, but who has the calories to spare? Occasionally the military, a soccer team, or firemen run down city streets to stay in shape. The rare sight of even these runners elicits stares from passers-by. I’m harassed and gawked at just walking down the street or shopping. Imagine the kind of taunting and ridicule a pasty-white guy in short-shorts running down the street will receive. And in village!? I tried running and I may as well have landed my spaceship in Times Square.

No surprise, but it is hot and we’re almost always sweating. The only time it is cool enough to exercise is early in the morning, which also happens to be the only chance to be indoors and not be dripping with sweat. It’s difficult to knowingly commit myself to constant sweating.

Julie, my wonderful and supportive wife, seems to take great joy in reminding me of my advanced age and expanding waistline. 30 years old! Practically middle-aged with the bear claws to prove it. And let's not get started on the receding hairline...

I may as well just throw in the towel now and get buried in a piano case.

I recently came to the difficult conclusion that I may have women’s genes. I’m not talking about the skinny jeans those young hipsters are wearing. My body seemingly responds to carbohydrates like a woman’s body. In a carb-heavy diet, most men lose considerable amounts of weight and become very thin. Women’s bodies store those carbs away to nourish babies or something. Unfortunately, I have the muffin-top to prove that I’ve got the genes of a woman without the ability to breastfeed.

My last fault? I’ve spent much too long sitting on my large behind thinking of excuses and writing this entry rather than exercising.

A Resolution
In spite of all of these evil forces working against me, I’ve recently turned over a new leaf. It’s my new year’s resolution. And this is the kind of resolution that doesn’t require standing in line for the cardio machine at the gym… because there aren’t any. I’ve finally started running, and the villagers are getting used to the daily sight of my ghost-white thighs. They cheer for me as I “do the sport” and I even have a growing rotation of running partners. If I can keep it up, maybe I’ll be ready for the next trip to the beach. This close to the equator, bikini season is a year-round concern.

Sunday, March 4, 2012


Wait for it... wait for it... oh look at that tiny cute one at the end!!