Avoiding the Matoke Belly – Staying Fit While Working in Africa

“How can you GAIN weight in Africa?” This is the question I encountered when I returned from my first stint in Africa as a student in 2007. Sure, it might seem strange at first, you know – the whole poverty porn image of the bone-skinny starving African with a vulture standing nearby waiting for his lunch. But the reality in Africa is much different. Within the African communities I have visited, being called “fat” is a great compliment. Having a little meat on your bones is considered a sign of status and wealth. Not to mention, a lot of African men seem to enjoy a curvy figure.

Coming from a carb-conscious, skinny-obsessed, American culture, I was shocked to see my body curving out from excess matoke consumption during my first trip to Uganda. Three meals a day and two tea breaks loaded with carbs, sugar, and oil rich sauces will lead to unwanted weight gain in a hurry. Not to mention, I was living in a homestay where my surrogate mother thought I was way too skinny and where the housekeeper was appalled if I even tried to take a dish to the kitchen. This led to dinner plates piled high with enough food to feed a village and some of the least active weeks of my life.

Life is not much different now, as an expatriate living in the D.R. Congo. While I don’t have a mother-hen urging me to take two more bites of my ugali, inevitably the first few months here led to an unwanted palm-oil pudge. With a housekeeper, gardener, and driver in a culture where it’s unheard of for a mzungu to do any manual labor, no wonder my jeans were getting tighter and tighter. After three months, my “muffin-top” induced curiosity made me finally search out a cheap Chinese bathroom scale (cheap being the plastic, not the $20 price). I was shocked to discover that I’d put on about 10 lbs or 4.5 kgs!

Growing up, I never had problems with my weight. I was always a lean, active kid with a high metabolism. Honestly, I’ve never been one to work out for the sake of working out. Up through high school, I was always active in some sort of sport, so working out wasn’t necessary aside from practices and games. Later in high school and college, I tried adopting a workout routine, but always found them boring and time consuming. So I continued to depend on my metabolism to save me from the adverse effects of Carolina pork bbq, buffalo wings, ranch dressing, Oreos, and pizza (my main food vices). But, as my mother always warned, the inevitable happened within the last year. My metabolism began slowing down and with it, I starting watching my calorie intake for the first time.

About three weeks ago, after realizing how much weight I had gained, I decided that it was time to start thinking more about what I eat and how much exercise I get each day. Most of my family has a history of heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes. While I am still within the healthy weight range for my build, from other family members’ battles, I have learned first-hand the difficulties in losing weight once the BMI moves above the healthy range.

I was a bit surprised to find how little discussion there is out there in the blogosphere on strategies to avoid unwanted weight gain while working abroad, especially in countries like D.R. Congo where the food is oil-rich, there are limited work-out facilities, and where local staff make even exercise from housecleaning impossible. I thought I would share my own experiences and tactics.

Don’t Diet, Just Count

“Losing weight is simple: just eat fewer calories than you burn.” We’ve all heard it a hundred times – but that’s because it is true. The body burns calories through its normal processes and when we exert energy through movement and force. Any calories consumed in excess of what the body burns get stuck in the body. This causes weight gain. To lose weight, we have to burn more calories through exercise and/or eat fewer calories than normal. Exercise is good for us, so a combined approach is better and leads to more rapid weight loss than just watching what we eat.

This all sounds simple, right? Think again. Counting calories is hard. It requires knowledge about the amount of calories in certain portions and the ability to eyeball an appropriate serving size. It’s frustrating and time consuming to measure and keep track of everything you eat. In a place like D.R. Congo, the task is even more difficult because control over portions and contents of food is limited. It’s rude not to gorge yourself when invited to a colleague’s house for lunch. It’s almost impossible to figure out how much mayonnaise was in that cabbage salad.

One useful tool is the calorie counting website. There are several available; however, I prefer Calorie Count. The website is easy to navigate and provides a host of features. Getting set up is easy. They design a specific caloric regime to meet your intake and weight loss goals. They provide logging options for food, water, and exercise. The website tracks a host of different vital nutrients, not just calories and fat. In addition, they offer nutrition information on thousands of foods. If the food isn’t listed, it’s easy to design your own meal and/or recipe to figure out an approximation of the calories in the dish.

I’m not sure about how other sites work or if they are as good. Calorie Count was the first website I stumbled upon and the only one I have used. I am sure others are just as useful.

Exercise without Gym Equipment

As an expat trying to stay in shape and lose a few pounds, I’ve also found that it’s difficult to get access to gym equipment. Gyms have always kind of freaked me out to begin with. I really don’t like other people watching me grunt and sweat. Here in Kisangani, people are always staring at the mzungu woman. I can only imagine what it would be like to go for a jog or walk into the one local gym. But I have a strong desire to get into shape and lose a few of these rice kilos.

Over the last three weeks, I’ve focused on no-equipment exercises that can easily be done at home or the office, pretty much anywhere in the world. These activities can be combined into any routine with any number of intervals and circuits. Here are some useful websites for no-equipment activities:

The important thing I have learned is to start out slow and work your way up to consistent, daily 30 minute workouts. I started out doing just 15 minutes and am now working out at least 30 minutes, 5 times a week.

While it’s still early, the calorie counting method seems to be working. I’ve already lost half the weight I gained since arriving in D.R. Congo!

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4 Replies to “Avoiding the Matoke Belly – Staying Fit While Working in Africa”

  1. Just moved to Sierra Leone to be a clinical site manager of an upcoming clinical research trial and can already feel my body changing from the bread and rice. When I lived in Tanzania I gained 20 lbs in 3 months, so I am trying to start early on staying in shape! Thanks for the advice!

    1. Danielle – I’ve definitely continued to find it a challenge staying in shape out here. Over the HOLIDAYS in the US I actually lost about 5lbs! Part of me wonders how much of it is just bloating from the high oil and sodium content in the food. Also, the humidity could cause the body to bloat due to water retention. Either way – it’s no fun to see the matoke belly forming. Good luck with your work and work outs. 🙂

  2. Thank goodness! I was trying so hard to find information to help me and having such little luck. I’ve gained weight living in Uganda; a diet of rice, matoke, groundnut sauce and sweet potatoes has led my body into a puffy, seam stretching state, glad to hear other people have had this same issue.

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