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Last year, Bataung Matsau lost nearly 28kg. The Soweto resident began running, cycling and following a healthy diet and went from 96.4kg to 68.8kg.
But instead of congratulating him, his neighbours were wary.
“People would ask, ‘Are you okay?’ People would ask my friends, ‘Is Matsau all right?’” he said.
They incorrectly assumed his weight loss was caused by HIV.
Matsau has learned to ignore this stigma, but it seems others would rather risk their long-term health than face the rumours.
“People are afraid to lose weight because they may end up being labelled Aids sufferers. But it seems acceptable to suffer from hypertension,” Matsau said. “They don’t realise that with high blood pressure, you may not wake up the next day.”
In addition to hypertension, being overweight contributes to chronic illness such as cardiovascular disease (heart attack), stroke, cancer and type 2 diabetes.
Yet according to a 2010 study commissioned by GlaxoSmithKline, 78 percent of obese and 52 percent of morbidly obese South Africans consider themselves “healthy”. When most adults in SA are too heavy – 61 percent of adults are overweight or obese – this attitude becomes even more alarming.
So why aren’t more people in SA scrambling to shed excess weight?
SA’s obesity rates are rapidly gaining on industrialised superpowers such as the US and the UK. Obesity is no longer a rich man’s problem. While it was once considered a luxury to spend money on overeating, it is now considered a luxury to spend money, and time, on losing weight. Fat wallets help make skinny people.
“I used to think: people with money, they can worry about weight loss. In the township, why would I want to get skinny? People will think I’m poor,” Matsau said.
“Being poor is already a forced diet. And if you exercise, you’re wasting all of that energy. We need to harness it.”
Socioeconomic barriers to weight loss are pervasive. Gym memberships are too expensive and inconvenient for many. Doctor’s visits can also incur costs, so unhealthy people may avoid check-ups altogether.
When magwinyas (fatcakes) sell for only a rand at every corner, it is no surprise that nutritious foods don’t provide enough bang for the buck.
To top it off, urbanisation diminishes physical activity.
“People take a taxi (from Pimville) to Maponya Mall,” cobbler Jimmy Nyambi said. “You can get to Maponya with your feet.”
“You end up spending more on transport than on food,” said community activist Sam Ndlovu.
Ndlovu believes the community needs to take this problem into its own hands.
“We as Africans are afraid of going back to our roots. When we buy spinach, we put fat and a lot of salt,” Ndlovu said.
Ndlovu wants to take an unused patch of land and turn it into a community garden, allowing citizens to grow their own vegetables.
However, there are many obstacles to face before his vision of this oasis becomes a reality.
“If you start a garden here, it’s not properly fenced. You do the labour but other people will take the food,” Matsau said.
For now, promoting education is Ndlovu’s top priority.
“I think most people are afraid of going to check-ups. They think they are going to get negative results,” Ndlovu said. “We must have a time to educate the community.”
Even educating one small community can make a difference to the country as a whole.
“There are other people who will have high blood pressure or diabetes whether they exercise or not; it’s genetic,” Matsau said. “But queues of unhealthy young (overweight) people are clogging up the health system.”