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DIETING IN AFRICA/E/ame Neil On THE FIRST TIME I heard about dieting, it was my mother who was doing it. In my eighth year, my mother, father and I lived Ui the town of Eku, in the middle of the Nigerian rain forest. My sister was away at boarding school. My parents were medical missionaries, and one of the things my mother did was visit village clinics, where she taught mothers about good nutrition, germ theory and the love of Jesus. This was In the early '60s, and we occupied a lovely ranch-style house—copied, I guess, from some American model. Ours was made of cement block, though, and two weeks after completion, mold had already begun to creep across the corrugated roof; the cement floors never dried properly. We had louvered windows on the Inside, and on the outside there were screens and metal latticing; air conditioning wasn't even a dream for us yet. Most of our furniture was handmade by the hospital carpenters, from mahogany. We owned a prime mahogany dining table as big as a raft, around which the three of us gathered to feast on spoon bread and homemade potato fries, sliced tomatoes, okra and chocolate pie for dessert. Although my mother wasn't eating chocolate pie now; she was dieting. In the evening, I could find her on the tiled floor of the little foyer. Here she had room for leg Ufts and sit-ups and scissor kicks and, when she was standing up, a kind of arm swinging and toe touching that made her look like a tilting windmill. I remember mostly the leg lifts, how serious she became doing them, how, when finally her legs reached the floor, she let out a pumped sigh of relief. When we visited the River Ethiope, a paradisiac body of water that would put Thoreau and his Waiden to shame, my mother exercised. I romped Ui the cold, clear, artesian well, imagining myself and my best friend, David, as members of a water-breathing genus. We were bold as elephants crossing the current, and every afternoon was an eternity. But my mother, head high above water, kicked her legs out while holding fiercely to the pier. Every afternoon for her was a regimen of kicks and puUs. It went along with her diet. Everything about dieting, it seemed, was dead serious, and you hoped it would be over soon. Back at home after our swim, I ate like Hercules, and my father and I helped ourselves to seconds. Not my mother. She began her day with grapefruit, one boUed egg, maybe a piece of dry toast. She wasn't about to rum the entire day by splurging on dessert m the evening. She bowed 146 · The Missouri Review to the scales as regularly as a Muslim to Mecca—which was often, from what I had witnessed m Nigeria in those days. I did not understand dieting. My mother had always looked like my mother; she had not lost or gained or aged or anything. To my mind, her dieting avaüed nothing, though I suppose she did lose ten pounds or so after many weeks of this agony. Perhaps we were preparing for the annual Mission Meeting, where she would see friends she had not met for a year. Or perhaps we were going on Local Leave to somewhere like Lagos, and she wanted to look good in some dress from America that she was going to wear at our nightly dinners m that exquisite dining room at the Mission Hostel. There we ate like princes and queens, partaking of numerous courses, all served to us by Nigerian stewards dressed Ui impeccable white uniforms with gold buttons. This was aU happening when Nigeria was a new nation, and for the most part people were not hungry, though many children were malnourished . Passing through vülages on the way to the river I often saw youngsters with large, protruding bellies but very slender legs. I wondered about this anomaly, unable to figure out why their weight wasn't distributed properly aU over their bodies Uke mine was. II The next time I encountered dieting...


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