In Nairobi, you can find plenty of fast food joints, from Kentucky Fried Chicken to Domino’s Pizza, which recently opened its first franchise in the city. The supermarkets are filled with all kinds of biscuits and cookies. People like to carb up here: It’s a cheap way to keep up to speed with the pace of city life.
All that fast food is leading to predictably fast weight gains for Kenyans in the capital city. A recent study showed that 40 percent of Nairobi women are obese. That’s twice Kenya’s national average.
But where’s there’s weight gain, there are reality TV shows about losing weight. Americans have “The Biggest Loser”; Kenyans have “Slimpossible.” Interestingly, though, “Slimpossible” isn’t about rewarding the contestant who loses the most weight: it’s about getting Kenyans to rethink their headlong dive into convenience eating.
The show just wrapped up its sixth season, culminating with winner Olive Wanjiru picking up a prize of one million Kenyan shillings, or around $10,000. Wanjiru lost 50 pounds over 15 weeks, and unlike contestants on “The Biggest Loser,” she did not live on a ranch surrounded by personal trainers and nutritionists. The mother of two toddlers had to do her weight loss at home by choosing healthier foods and exercising. Her steady effort won the prize, not crash results.
And that’s the realistic message one of the show’s creators wants to send: Anyone can lose weight, and it’s more about health than body image or an arbitrary number. Nutritionist Lina Njoroge has worked in a Nairobi hospital for many years, seeing more and more patients coming in with Type 2 Diabetes and heart disease. She saw television as a chance to reach them.
But Kenyans aren’t quite the TV exhibitionists that Americans are.
“When we started the program, we actually could not get people on the show,” Njoroge says. “People never used to talk about weight. They are very shy and nobody [wanted to] go on national television and talk about the struggles” to lose weight, she says.
There were also cultural issues. In Kenya, some extra meat on your bones is often considered attractive.
“Many people don’t even want to lose weight, because they say they don’t want to lose their hips,” Njoroge says. “They don’t want to lose their behind.”
But at the recent casting call for season six of “Slimpossible,” more than a thousand women showed up. Maybe because the mission of the show is to promote healthy living, not crash-dieting, the viewing public has come around, watching as contestants come in every week to be weighed, but also to get their cholesterol and blood sugar levels checked.
When I visited Wanjiru’s home, she shows off the frozen-pizza-free contents of her fridge. She’s glad the judges recognized her slow and steady weight loss, and her motivation.
“When you become a mother, I think, you have to take care of yourself first so that you can take care of someone else,” Wanjiru says. “I had to lose weight so I would be able to take care of my children. I know I have a long way to go, but for now I’m just feeling good. I’m happy. I’m really happy.”