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The rich are eating like rabbits while the poor take fat like kings

By Ted Malanda | May 31st 2021
Children play a game in the Korogocho area, one of the largest slums in Nairobi bordering a large rubbish dump. [Stafford Ondego, Standard] .

I am one of the fake Nairobians who lie to kinsmen that I live in Nairobi. Truth is, like them, I have no clue what happens in the big city of lights because I am a resident of the rural and dusty Machakos County.

I remain for all practical purposes that nervous villager who fled the village in 1993, but still flees across highways like a frightened mongrel on the rare occasion I venture into the CBD.

When I am bored, I like to stand by the window and observe the human traffic on the road outside my flat. Without fail, there is always a relatively well fed man or woman (it is politically incorrect to say “fat” these days) huffing and panting to burn calories. My favourite are those who walk at a leisurely trot in sportswear. They know their lazy strolls won’t reduce the paunch, but you can’t fault them for not trying. Plus when the wife says, “jump”, jump you must, even if hopping three inches above the ground is likely to kill you.

There is a butchery along this road, too. And while the well-fed jog past to trim their waistlines, I also observe their skinnier counterparts staring longingly at the carcasses on display. I can swear I hear balls of saliva slamming down their stomachs; they wish they could afford meat. The irony!  

What I can’t fathom, however, is why what economists would call ‘Kenya’s potbelly per capita’ is rising when the Kenyan economy is said to be shrinking like the libido of a man navigating midlife crisis. I dare say nothing eloquently explains our resilience better than this ability to keep getting chubbier in the middle of a pandemic, lockdowns and curfews that are leaking jobs and household incomes like a sieve.

When I was a kid, there was only one potbelly in my village. One! And it was owned by the village butcher, a man whose girth and means were as highly famed as his capacity for cross-pollination. Everyone else was so skinny that had you roasted them alive, which is what governments across the world universally do to the poor, you would have been hard-pressed to squeeze a dollop of fat from their bottoms, the only protuberance on their bodies.

Women back then didn’t pose for photos flaunting the wealth of their hips or busts. Which hips? Which busts? You don’t fatten hips or busts when you spend the whole day hoeing the land in the sun with the toddler, one of a brood of nine, strapped on your back sucking your empty breasts dry.

For that generation of Kenyans, meat, any meat, popped up once a month. The meals were really frugal, mainly comprising sugarless porridge, ugali, tubers, overcooked vegetables and, once in a while, a mug of fermented milk. Now that I think about it, the only people who owned potbellies in my village were children. Kwashiorkor was commonplace, and it came with scabies and severe intestinal worm infestation.

This aridity of the potbelly was observed in the 1970s, when the Kenyan economy – awash with stolen coffee money – was said to be a strong as hell. Our industries were thriving. Jobs were easy to come by, even for high school dropouts with decent grades. But how do you explain the spread of this thing when the economy is rumoured to be dead as the dodo?

In the days when kwashiorkor ruled my village, only politicians and businessmen could afford to store fat. These days, potbellies are all over the place. They are on both ends of the classroom. They are in market places, in church, in the police service, in low income settlements and among salaried people who live pay cheque to pay cheque.

Potbellies seem to be everywhere except where they belong: Big business and politics because no millionaire politician or businessperson wants to be caught dead owning one. 

We have come full circle, to rich people eating frugally like peasants, while the poor engorge on fat like kings.


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