The headline, which caught my attention as I glanced through the results of my “coronavirus UK” Google search, was “Clear link between COVID-19 complications and obesity.” Reading the article, which summarized the findings of a report released by Public Health England, I was reminded of a conversation I had with my aunt one year earlier. She expressed her displeasure with the insufficient number of McDonald’s-type fast food outlets in Ibadan, which made her visits back home less enjoyable.
Since I moved to the UK five years ago to continue my studies, I have met many people like my aunt; people who, despite having moved out of Nigeria before I could string sentences together, seem to have all the answers to Nigeria’s problems. To easily spot them in conversation, these “the kind of things we can eat” people, as Chimamanda Adichie called them in Americanah, look out for phrases like “what Africa needs to is…” and “how we do things here in London…”
I told my aunt I believed it was a blessing that these fast food chains were not common in Ibadan, pointing out the steps taken by the UK and several other high-income countries to reduce consumption of fast foods—such as calorie labelling, sugar reduction programs, and advertisement restrictions. “Why do we want to eat ounje oyinbo (white people’s foods) once we get a little rich?” I said frustrated. While my aunt unsurprisingly met my tirade with condescension, this conversation made me reflect on my own relationship with fast food growing up in Ibadan. The memory of eating my first burger remains vivid; my uncle, who unlike anyone else in my home at the time had travelled outside Nigeria, bought burgers for my siblings and I from the first KFC in Ibadan a few months after it opened. The heavy creaminess of mayonnaise and the crunchiness of the onions gave the burger an uncooked feel, one strikingly different from the foods I normally had for dinner.
As my parents rose up the socioeconomic ladder over the years, the number of the Western chains in the city increased, along with our appetite for fast food. For the vast majority of people in Ibadan, buying pizza from Dominos continues to represent more than buying food; it is a means to enhance perceived social status. It is not uncommon for the more privileged individuals to post photos on social media mocking lower-income individuals for having photoshoots in places like Dominos, KFC or the South African-owned supermarket, Shoprite. This preference for foreign products, known as consumer xenocentrism, often stems from people viewing their products, ideas, and lifestyles through the lens of colonial prejudice.
Beyond shaping dietary choices, consumer xenocentrism is deeply ingrained in the social fabric of Nigeria, with this relic of colonization influencing early responses to COVID-19. In April, the Nigerian government invited a team of 18 Chinese doctors to assist the response to the pandemic, because apparently the experienced medical personnel in the country were incompetent. This decision was met with huge backlash from Nigerian frontline healthcare workers, due to receiving inadequate support from the government during the pandemic and ongoing accusations of Chinese neocolonialism in Africa. This xenocentric mindset resulted in several African countries, including Nigeria, importing policies from countries such as the UK regardless of their applicability to these African countries.
For my master’s degree thesis, I analyzed obesity control policy documents across sub-Saharan Africa using a discursive sociological approach. My research shows that the rise in obesity levels was commonly presented as an individual problem, with most of the proposed solutions emphasizing the promotion of interventions to increase healthy eating and engagement in physical activity. This emphasis tends to discount the societal structures that drive unhealthy food choices in African societies, with the impact of colonization and neo-colonization on culinary habits remaining under-analyzed. While the rise in obesity levels is a global situation, the peculiarity of the situation in African countries stemmed from the relationship between risk of obesity and socioeconomic status.
There seems to be a consensus that the burden of obesity tends to shift from the rich to the poor as a country’s gross national income (GNI) per capita, or income level, increases. However, my research shows that, unlike in their European counterparts with comparable income level, the risk of obesity increases with socioeconomic status in several African countries. The common presentation of the dietary transition occurring in several African countries as an inevitable consequence of economic development masks the process of colonization, neocolonization, and acculturation as it pertains to food structures and choices in African societies. The export of Western food culture, from consumption to preparation, into African societies is an extension of the destruction of traditional food systems by European colonizers through the creation of cash-crop economies in the colonial era.
The rise in obesity, and obesity-related diseases in African countries, risks putting additional strain on already stretched national health budgets, potentially making these countries more vulnerable to future disasters such as COVID-19. There is a clear opportunity to arrest this rise by emphasizing the need for decolonization of personal and collective identity, by promoting campaigns to increase consumption of locally produced traditional foods, and promote healthier cooking methods. Will future policies address this? My aunt probably doesn’t think so.