I have a vain goal during my time in Sierra Leone: I want to lose weight before I return to the States.
I don’t intend to starve myself here. By all means, I plan to eat all the unique and delicious African cuisine that comes my way. But the humidity makes the whole country a sauna, and the amount of walking I do should surely have some effect on my weight when I go home. One can only hope.
A notable cultural difference between here and the States is the perception of overweight people. After discussions with colleagues at Awoko, I learned that one is considered affluent and successful if they are overweight. Americans, on the other hand, view overweight people as unfit and too lazy to work out. In fact, obesity in America is viewed as an epidemic, akin to AIDS or cholera. I see that as an exaggeration, but I do admit that obesity has become a problem.
This major cultural difference has interesting roots. In America, food is affordable and convenient, mainly in the form of fast food restaurant chains such as McDonalds. They are found at the same frequency as a person selling shampoo or cigarettes on the streets of Freetown and can serve you a full meal in less than 10 minutes. A meal consisting of a burger, fries and soda can be bought at less than US$5, or roughly around Le 4,000, an affordable price for even the poorest people in the States.
Fast food is not healthy and has often been blamed for America’s obesity problem. At the same time, it provides an inexpensive meal for a struggling family. Where do you draw the line between barring poor people from eating food that is unhealthy for them when it is the only food they can afford? I struggle to think of the best answer to that.
That is why I shudder at the thought of American fast food corporations such as McDonalds setting themselves up in Freetown, though I know their presence would be a welcome boost to its economy. No doubt the first one that opens up here will be overwhelmed with lines stretch out into the street. No doubt that people will be given much-needed jobs. No doubt that a mother will be relieved to eat a convenient dinner without worrying about refrigeration and filling her lungs with charcoal.
And here I go again with other questions I struggle to answer.
Am I too pampered and self-righteous because I don’t like the prospect of McDonalds coming to Sierra Leone, or for that matter, any other developing country where it is still nonexistent? Is it selfish for me to not support such an opportunity if it ever comes for people living in dire poverty?
“McDonalds food will make you sick in the long-term future with cancer and diabetes and other diseases.”
So does that mean a poor family should starve?
“McDonalds will only exploit their workers and pay them a low wage.”
So does that mean we have to deny the chance to work from people who would probably love to leave jobs that may be far more grueling and demeaning than McDonalds, or who may not work at all?
If American fast food chains set their sights on Sierra Leone, I will not object because I don’t doubt it would improve the standard of life. But I am concerned of what the long term effects would be.