Today one of the newspaper posters that are plastered along the streets caught my eye. It said: Swazis laziest in the world. My curiosity was definitely piqued.
It turns out the local reporting of research findings by the Lancet was slightly inaccurate — Swaziland has, in fact, been ranked the 2nd Laziest Country in the world, with an overwhelming 69% of the population falling short of recommended activity levels. ( For more on this, check out: http://forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2012/07/18/the-laziest-countries-in-the-world-u-s-not-even-close/ )This is somewhat surprising, given that the country is still very much a part of the developing world, with most people living in rural areas without a ton of modern conveniences. However, I can’t say I’m too surprised.
When I first moved to my rural community, I was surprised by how few people I saw walking around. The transportation options in my area were awful, often requiring you to wait 2+ hours, and with most places you’re interested in going within the community being less than a 60 minute walk, it always seemed silly to me to wait around for a mini-bus that would cost you money. So I walked. Almost exclusively (exceptions being when I had a lot of stuff to carry or a khumbi happened to be passing and it was over 105 degrees). For the first 6 months, nearly everyone I passed would make some quizzical comment, then talk amongst themselves about the strange white girl who walked too much. Even when I didn’t have anywhere to go, I sometimes felt like being outside and going exploring — a concept that my host family and friends in the community just didn’t understand. I also ran, and even had an exercise bike (one of the best gifts my dad has ever purchased for me) so that I could stay fit — and therefore sane, as exercise is a huge stress reliever for me. People didn’t get it, but they eventually stopped commenting on it and came to expect to see me on early morning runs or afternoon walks. I wasn’t in good shape, by any means, but I did make an effort to stay active.
The population in my area was one of extreme contrasts — obese or undernourished. When I came here, I had anticipated seeing the undernourished (I mean, in a country where about 2/3 of the population lives on about a dollar a day, what can you expect?!), but I wasn’t prepared for how obvious the issues of obesity would be. I later learned that diabetes and blood pressure problems are growing as well. It’s a combination of factors, really, mostly stemming from the popular diet and complete lack of active lifestyles. The staple food here is a thick porridge made from maize meal (ground up dried corn), which is filling but has almost no nutritional value, essentially being empty carbs and calories. This is usually garnished with vegetables or beans or meat, when available. Still, I wish I had a photo of a typical plate full of food to explain the heaping mound of porridge that I’m talking about. It’s something I confront every time someone dishes me up, because I actually do like the porridge, but I only need a cup or so, whereas I wouldn’t be surprised if a typical serving size here is 4 or 5. The macronutrient distribution is all out of whack, with far too many simple carbs and not enough protein or nutritional fruits and veggies. On top of that, I think there’s some social aspects to the lack of activity. As the country has developed, it seems that an attitude about physical activity or manual labor has accompanied it. Transportation, even if expensive and unreliable, is considered a sign of development and prestige, so people want to make use of it. Sure, 50 years ago they would have had to walk to that community meeting, but it’s no longer necessary, so why do it?! Livelihoods have developed in a similar way. Most people used to be involved in subsistence farming and obviously got a lot of activity from working the land. My area of the country receives very little rainfall, making it difficult to effectively cultivate crops (though some still try), so few people in my area are involved with this. More generally, though, families rely on one or two people who are able to find gainful employment to purchase food for the household. It seems like buying food somehow gives the family status, and so long as it’s possible, families do it. Sure, I’ve seen people have to resort to gathering and eating the indigenous plants, but rarely do they choose this if store-bought food is available. Career choices also avoid anything involving much manual labor (as I would say is true of much of the developed world); once people achieve a certain level of education, they believe this physical labor is beneath them.
My experience living in the city has been slightly different — I at least see a spectrum of activity levels. When I go running in the morning, I’m not the only one on the road. There is a gym near my apartment that has a decent number of members, although few of them utilize it on a regular basis. It was encouraging to see some active people and feel that I wasn’t so different after all! Of course, a few days later I notice a woman getting off a khumbi less than a 5 minute walk from town… which means she waited 5-15 minutes for the khumbi to fill in town rather than walking 5 minutes. I saw the same woman do this every morning for a couple of weeks, and it saddened me greatly. Simple things like walking to and from the store, or to work, when possible just aren’t thought of much.
I’ll be interested to see how things are moving forward, because I think more attention is being paid to these issues. There’s a lot more information being made available about diabetes and the importance of living a healthy lifestyle, and the schools recently began offering physical education as a class. Still, there are conflicting opinions regarding an ideal weight — with some of the more “Westernized” people living/working in town ascribing to a more Western ideal of being thin, while a more traditional opinion exists that says having a belly shows that you’re doing well financially (something that caused me a LOT of stress when I gained weight and had people constantly commenting “you’re getting fat!”). On top of all of that, some stigma still exists with regards to certain body types being attached to idea of HIV or being on ART treatment for HIV.
Personally, I wish that physical activity could be somewhat disassociated with standards of beauty or ideal bodies… because even if you want to keep your belly, it would be healthy to go for a brisk watch each day! I’ve recently noticed these issues emerging in children as well, and think that child obesity is so preventable yet so hard to overcome. I hope that the new activities at school will help, but I know that it will take time and a lot of concerted effort to get people moving and leading healthier lives.
Although the study on inactivity of country’s populations was the catalyst for this post, it’s not something I’m presenting as an end-all-be-all. I’m a little curious about the methodologies and how it classified activity… since I know that in the rural areas a lot of people still have to walk to fetch water and fire wood, and anyone who has ever done laundry by hand can attest to the fact that it is some serious activity! I hope that circumstances will improve, and the life expectancy and quality of life here can continue to return to levels from before the HIV epidemic broke out. All of the health problems plaguing this country are intertwined; some are easy to prevent and respond to, while others are significantly more challenging. Kancane kancane it can be done, and it all starts by doing what you can, when you can.