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Force-feeding a Scourge Among Mauritanian Nomads

Journalists have reported an unusual scourge among the Mauritanian nomads - the force-feeding of their girls. For to be fat is considered a sensible// ideal for brides-to-be.

Mothers cross sticks around the ankles and squeeze the ends together with rope till the girls cry out in pain.

That is one of forcing daughters to swallow litres of milk and mountains of couscous for days on end until they developed wings of fat hanging from their arms and their skin was traced with silvery stretch-marks - attributes considered the height of feminine beauty in Mauritania.

'They eat and eat, and drink and drink, and when they can't eat anymore we pinch them and sometimes they vomit,' Braika, a mother said.

'When they vomit on purpose, we make them eat the vomit to teach them not to do it again.'

She did not feel guilty about force-feeding her daughter. Only when fattened up, daughters could have the pick of husbands. 'A thin girl could be blown away in the wind, people think she is a stick and she will never find a husband,' she said.

Nomads seem to believe a fat girl is a healthy girl.

But then the Mauritanian government seems to have realized that in reality, obesity has reached epidemic proportions among Mauritanian women. It is actually killing them.

Barely into their 40s, fattened women are dying from obesity-related diseases such as diabetes and heart failure.

Mounina Mint Abdalla is a health consultant who worked for years with the government trying to stamp out force-feeding.

But she acknowledged that government radio sketches warning women of the dangers of obesity have had little effect on a society where fatness is revered as a symbol of nobility and good breeding.

Nonetheless, force-feeding and the nomadic way of life is fast disappearing, said Mounina.

'The country has been hit by years of drought and we simply don't have that kind of quantity of milk now, or the time it takes,' she added.

In the market in the capital Nouakchott, Mounina pointed to all the women working in the stalls selling everything from brightly coloured veils to fake Chanel sunglasses.

'Just 15 years ago, women didn't work at all but now all these women are working because life in the city is very expensive,' she said.

But despite this, women are still finding ways of fattening themselves up.

A pill-seller said he could not count the number of women who buy steroids meant for cattle.

'Some come and buy 20 boxes in one go,' he said. But if force-feeding creates problems for women in later life, the cattle steroids can be an instant killer. Side-effects include renal failure and heart attacks.

Dr Maagouiya, the general surgeon at the main hospital in the capital city of Nouakchott, said that without autopsies - which are not permitted in Mauritania - he could not be sure how many lives the steroids had claimed but he believed the figure was high.

Yet mothers still come to him to request pills for their daughters, believing that thin girls are shameful because they look 'sick'. To be 'sick' is often a euphemism for having HIV/AIDS in Africa.

But the message is getting through to some Mauritanian women, like Mounina's nieces who have started exercising around the stadium as the sun goes down.

But they seemed to be doing it reluctantly and said they were trying to lose weight purely for health reasons, not because it would make them more attractive.

Dr Mougiya said he encountered the same attitude when he holds seminars trying to persuade obese women to slim down.

'They tell me that if they lose weight their husbands will leave them because everyone knows that in Mauritania men prefer a fat woman.'

But one thing is finally beginning to shake up popular attitudes to fatness - the explosion of Arab satellite channels obl iterating the monopoly held until recently by the state channel.

Mounina's teenage daughters, for instance, say they do not want to be fat like their cousins who are only a few years older then them. They said they want to be 'a normal size' like the Lebanese pop stars.

'Now Mauritanian men are looking at Lebanese singers and starting to compare them with us,' said 19-year-old Aicha.

'The men say to their wives 'why are you fat, why aren't you like Britney Spears?'

The lifestyle in Mauritania is changing fast - donkey carts and fruit stalls in Nouakchott are giving way to fast-food restaurants.

But then it is all a small beginning. Long, long way to go for the harassed Mauritanian girls.

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