Gavage in Mauritania
by Walid Zafar
The nation of Mauritania faces a myriad of social, political and economic problems, which has greatly impacted it’s ability to develop. While most Mauritanians live and work in urban centers, a sizable number still depend on agriculture and animal husbandry, specifically in rural areas where the government has had little influence in affecting policy. One area where this is most apparent has been with gavage, or the practicing of force feeding. In his book Mauritania, Alfred G. Gerteiny wrote this of gavage:
Women are subjected to gavage-that is, forced feeding, in order to gain weight. Fathers send daughters 10 or 11 years of age to live with herdtending dependent aznagui who see to it that the girls gain weight … often by being tied to the ground, and, to expand their stomachs, given nothing but water for three days. Then they are crammed with milk, usually camel’s milk.
Though decades have passed since Gerteiny wrote of the practice, gavage still occurs. In Mauritania, women who are overweight, or in some cases, obese, are considered beautiful and alternatively, women who weigh what we here would consider a healthy weight are shunned. In recent years, the government and NGO’s have forcefully led a campaign to discourage the practice. The forceful feeding of adolescent girls creates a plethora of health complications as the young girls mature into women. In the larger cities, the practice has visibly been cut, both by a changing of the times and by the discouragement of the practice. However, things are different in the desert, where people continue traditional practices.
One woman told the BBC:
“I make them eat lots of dates, lots and lots of couscous and other fattening food,”
But even in the cities, the reduction in gavage has not impacted the allure of obesity, which is still a pervasively dominant paradigm.
One woman told the Christian Science Monitor.
“The real gavage is on the point of becoming extinct. But there’s a new method … They take pills, some of them ones you usually give to an animal.”
While the practice of force feeding has reduced, obesity is still seen as a sign of beauty and women continue to go to great lengths and widths to gain weight. Al Jazeera explores the issue of savage and the changing psyche of Mauritanians in their Africa Uncovered series.