“I see you’ve put on more weight.”
If there are words more hurtful or cutting, I don’t know them. Only my doctor gets to say that to me and even he says them sparingly while beyond the reach of my right hook.
On my first evening back in Uganda, I sat outside my hotel in Gulu when my friend, Chris, who works at the hotel approached. I hugged him tight and greeted him in my best Acholi. He responded, “I see you’ve put on more weight.”
I fought back tears and forced a smile, one that might cover the fact that I have put on weight.
This past year was a tough one. I survived an impossible situation at work and spent the year learning to navigate the unexpected bouts of loneliness that came with my husband’s new work schedule, which has him working out of town more often. I’m not saying either of those are a good excuse for overeating, but that’s the reality of the choices I made this year.
So there I stood, chubbier than I was a year ago, absorbing Chris’ statement about my weight.
Now before you start readying your own right hook for Chris, let me explain a little piece of Acholi culture. The Acholi are a strong, svelte people. They primarily grow and raise their own food. Every home has a well-tended food garden and there is not enough food to eat for any other reason other than hunger.
When they comment on a change in weight, it’s an observation, not a judgment. When you lose weight, it’s not uncommon to hear something like, “You are losing your fat, are you sick?”
In that same vein, if I have a pimple or a mosquito bite or a scrape, my Acholi loved ones will poke it with their finger and ask me about it. It would be rude to notice something like that and not inquire about it. Let me just say that having the pimple that popped up on my nose poked at is not super fun. But again, it’s not done with any malice and I am expected to do the same to them. Just last night at dinner, my boda driver, Denis, wanted me to feel a wound on the back of his head. I explained that I didn’t want to poke something that already hurts and cause him more pain, but he insisted I feel it, feel the place he was hurt.
That’s the thing that had me fighting back tears when Chris remarked on my weight. He was poking a tender place that was already hurt. I know as I see more of my Acholi loved ones for the first time this year, they’re going to remark on my weight, they’re going to unintentionally touch a painful place.
Yesterday on the eight hour bus ride from Kampala into Gulu, our bus stopped alongside the road for one of the many patches of road construction. Food and drink vendors rushed to the stooped bus to sell their items to the people on the bus. I wasn’t hungry or thirsty, but as our bus waited I struck up a conversation with two of the vendors standing underneath my window. I figured it would be a good opportunity to practice my Acholi. They greeted me. I greeted them. They asked where I was going. I told them I was going to Gulu to do some work. It was all very benign.
Then of the vendors said I was beautiful. This is another Acholi cultural thing, they think all white women are beautiful and they feel free to comment on it. Normally I don’t give any attention to such remarks because they’re not real compliments and the color of my skin has nothing to do with beauty, but the vendor outside my bus window had said something a little different.
He said, “Mzungu, you are leng leng like a watermelon.” Translation: White girl, you are beautiful like a watermelon.
Then his friend chimed in, “Your eyes are like beautiful pineapples.”
I laughed and thanked them in Acholi and our bus pulled away a few minutes later.
That evening as I sat talking with Chris, fighting back tears from his remark about my weight, the words of the roadside vendor launched from my lips. “Today someone told me I’m leng leng like a watermelon, Chris.”
It’s true, I may be round like a watermelon, but I’m also delicious and full of life. I’m happy to tell you that I not only survived that impossible work situation, but I came out the victor. I’m glad to tell you that I’m doing a better job navigating bouts of loneliness. I’m riding my bike and doing this revolutionary thing called eating when I’m hungry. If you’ve ever struggled with your weight, then you know how seriously revolutionary that is.
Beautiful like a watermelon? Hell yeah, I am.