The Obolobo Show: A (fictional) reality show focused on women of a certain size who have to navigate life in Ghana while simultaneously being called all manner of pejoratives and being offered useless advice, remedies and commentary on their ‘obolonity’. I have found myself as unwilling cast member of this show.
I was feeling really good about myself when I landed at Kotoka International Airport three weeks ago. I had packed efficiently enough to deter porters from feeling the need to “joss” me for change as I tried to leave the terminal. I had smiled and slanged my way to acquiring decent service in the city. For the first time in my life, I have even been wearing sunblock in an effort to protect my skin! For the majority of my vacation, I have felt like a confident, proficient sojourner through the streets of Accra and its environs.
The feeling didn’t last as nearly as long as I needed it to though. With one word – just one word hurled at me in rapid succession! – I’ve found myself shrouded in self-doubt and diminished self-confidence.
“Obolobo” officially means “fat.” However, the true context of the word is not so innocent. How can I put this? In America, it’s the equivalent of being called
1) Thunder Thighs
2) Thunder Chunk
4) Chunky Ass
5) Fat Ass
You get the picture.
Can you imagine that? Just chilling at Subway and some dude walks up to you and says “What it do, Cheese Cake?” Yet people in Ghana feel at liberty to do it every day!
The first week I was in Ghana I was essentially sequestered in the beach town of Axim, and had no encounters with anyone I knew or who had known me at my previous weight. I was apprehensive about taking off my clothes and playing at the beach, until I saw this whale of a White woman lying out in shorts and a BRA. Well, if she felt secure enough to expose herself, then why shouldn’t I? I who was half her size at that? Off into the water I went.
However, once I left the polite company of the resort, I was no longer sheltered. On one of or sightseeing trips, I got out of the car to take a picture of a sign board. A group of young men were sitting idly in front of a small kiosk. I nodded in their direction in acknowledgement, took my picture, and went back to the car. One of them could hardly wait to get the words out of his mouth.
“Ei! Obolo! Wo ko hein? (Hey fatty! Where are you going?)” he taunted.
I pretended I didn’t understand Twi kept walking. I mean, what does one say in response to that? I wasn’t quite ashamed, and I wasn’t quite angry. I certainly felt “some way” though. However, I shook the foreign feeling off and tried to keep a positive attitude.
When one comes to Ghana, as I’m sure is the same in most parts of Africa, it is customary to greet as many of your relatives, family friends, former school teachers and pets as you possibly can. It’s considered a slight if you don’t and I have made every endeavor to do that since I’ve been here. Generally I can’t be bothered with the effort, but I am trying to keep the flame of my waning Ghanaian customs and obligations alight as much as I can on this trip in particular. I dutifully went to visit an “auntie” (no blood relation at all, of course) in East Legon. She owns a shop, and is always out of the country. To my surprise, she was behind the counter, chatting with her daughter and a friend.
“Hei! Malaka!” she said in genuine surprise. “When did you come?”
I explained that I’d been out of town to celebrate a birthday.
“Saa? And you went to the beach looking like that?”
“Sorry?” I said. This time I was the one genuinely surprised.
“Yes! Look at how you are fat! Is Marshall also fat like this?”
Her daughter, who has lived in the States and understands the implications of calling someone “fat” was aghast.
“Mommy! You just can’t call people fat,” she whispered harshly.
“Oh! Oh, okay! You Americans don’t like to be called fat, eh?” she chuckled.
Again, what could I do? I did the only thing I knew how to do in my defense: I made a fat joke about myself.
“Yes,” I confirmed with a mischievous grin. “Marshall and I are gaining weight and keeping each other warm in the winter.”
I invited my auntie to laugh with me, which she did uproariously. Ghana is so weird. People feel at liberty to offend you, and it is incumbent upon you to assuage them of any feelings of guilt after meting out any offense.
From East Legon I found myself in Labone. My father had told me that one of my good friends had given birth just 2 weeks before. Victoria and I have been friends since Form 3, and although we aren’t as close, we have kept in touch and can always pick up in our relationship from where we left off. I walked up to her house and found her in the kitchen cooking and completely doused in sweat.
“I brought you a present!” I said smiling broadly and handing a pack of diapers to the house-girl.
“Oh, thank you,” she said softly.
She seemed happy to see me, but a cloud of concern soon covered her face. She frowned and put her hands on her hips.
“Malaka, you are really fat, you know? You were doing so well the last time you were in Ghana. You lost some weight.”
I was taken aback, but as is my role in these types of encounters, I forced myself to explain my circumstances. I refused to apologize, however.
“The weight I lost last time I was here was because I didn’t have food and because I was sad,” I informed her. “It wasn’t healthy weight loss.”
“Still,” she continued, “you have to try and get back on it. This is too much!”
I glanced over at her and held my tongue. She had a patch of grey hair the covered her forehead. Her hips were wide from child birth. Her feet and ankles were swollen and she was in desperate need of a pedicure. None of that mattered though. I was the fat one, and no matter how busted she looked, my crime was the worst offense. Her guests, who were greedily eating fufu, smirked silently and gazed at my body.
“You know what?” I said earnestly. “I actually bought something in Cantonments that’s going to help me with my goals. Let me show you.”
I rooted around in my purse and pulled out a half-eaten bar of chocolate. Victoria and her guests were distraught.
“Henh! Is this supposed to help you lose weight?” they cried in near unison.
“I didn’t say it was to lose weight!” I cackled wickedly. “I said it was to help me with my goal…which is to be happy!”
I invited them to laugh at my expense, which again, they were more than happy to do. I smiled and said goodbye to her and said I’d be back in a week. At this point, my self-esteem was at the rim of the toilet. All I needed was for someone to push me in and flush.
I never realized HOW body conscious women in Ghana are. I look around and everyone looks so healthy to me. People over here don’t live a sedentary lifestyle. They walk everywhere. They drink loads of water. But if you’re any bigger than an American size 4, you’re automatically labeled as obolobo. It’s maddening, and troubling. Doesn’t anyone care about health? What does one’s size (exclusively) have to do with your health?
Ghana branch of the MOM Squad: Have you ever found yourself on the Obolobo Show? How do you cope with it?