Why society is the biggest impediment to healthy living

Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  • In my mother's eyes, I had changed in a way she didn't like. I wasn't the me she was used to.
  • I didn't look like someone who was "hearing good" as people from my community describe those who are flourishing in life, despite the fact that I am in gainful employment.
  • My sin? I had lost weight, voluntarily in fact, for fitness and health reasons.


"Ikuodo wiya," blurted out my dearest mum amid a warm and hearty embrace, and a lengthy exchange of pleasantries during my recent visit to the village.

For non-Dholuo speakers, she meant, of course with a tinge of humor – careful to subtly pass her stern message of disapproval without upsetting me, her last born child – that I had embarrassed her, or was in the process of doing so. How could I?

Our homestead in Ringa Kojwach, Homabay County, was already coming to life at around noon on that beautiful sunny Saturday of July 29, 2023.

In a couple of hours, we would be celebrating our brother's unprecedented and proud achievement.

Dr Osano Kenneth Onyango had a week earlier been conferred with a PhD at Kenyatta University, but as fate would have it, we couldn't be part of his big day in the capital Nairobi due to anti-government demos that made travelling not only risky, but also dangerous at that time.

And so, we had to make it up to him in a big way, and it was, without an iota of exaggeration, a befitting event for Daktari – full of joy, love, togetherness and merry making.

As the MC of the day, I watched up close as tears of joy rolled like river Awach flowing into Nam Lolwe, as speaker after speaker took to the podium. My elder brother, George, couldn't hold it together, and neither could my elder sister Celestine. Paul was composed as ever, while Moses provided the humor as usual. Violet wowed the audience with her mastery of the Swahili language.

I battled with extreme emotions behind the microphone - only exhaling after giving Ken a long hug as I ushered him to address the gathering that had endured hours of hunger waiting for the man of the moment to share a word or two with them.

Anyway, back to my mum. How could I possibly be a source of unease, even embarrassment to mummy dearest on a day she was destined to bask in honour and gain new respect from the whole village, and acquire a new honourable title of "min Dokta", the mother of Daktari?

In her eyes, I had changed in a way she didn't like. I wasn't the me she was used to. I didn't look like someone who was "hearing good" as people from my community describe those who are flourishing in life, despite the fact that I am in gainful employment. My sin? I had lost weight, voluntarily in fact, for fitness and health reasons.

In the Luo culture, which I proudly belong to, when you are well off, or doing well in life, or at least stable financially or something close to that, you are expected to look fat, overweight or outrightly obese. A protruding belly is a must.

Pot bellies are great symbols to us, they are absolute confirmation that you are eating life with a big spoon, and  that you can take good care of your family, and even the community. Jakom  – or chairman – are the names reserved for such men.

Yet, here I was, looking "malnourished" and "emaciated" at the most unfavourable time – when we had guests! When visitors come knocking, everything must look presentable. It is an African thing.

Around mid-March this year, I embarked on a very personal journey.

I, deliberately, after a lot of research and good advice, chose to shed a few kilograms to achieve my ideal and desired body weight and fitness levels. This journey that I have thoroughly enjoyed, meant I had to closely monitor what and when I eat. I also embarked on intermittent fasting, and regular exercise.

This regimen has taught me many things, most importantly discipline. Previously, I had a fairly well toned body. After all, I regularly worked out in the gym. Nonetheless, I was overweight as per the BIM calculation.

Moving around 91 kilos and tucking in my tummy each time a photographer showed up for that social media click, was no longer my thing. I wanted a lean and fit body. I also needed to fix some issues I had with my stomach, including bloating, gastritis and H. Pylori. Eating right was, and still is key.

In the words of former British bodybuilder Edward Abbew, "It comes to a point when you are at an age where you need to focus more on your health rather than your looks. Don’t compromise your health for vanity." I'm at that point.

At 73kg, I'm back to the weight I was 10 years ago before I became complacent with fitness matters. I feel light and healthy. I can stand for longer and move faster, my stomach feels better, I am no longer hooked on prescription drugs, and above all, I'm rocking a six pack as I approach my 40s!

This new lifestyle has revolutionised my way of thinking. I have been able to learn and unlearn. My approach to life has totally changed with more emphasis on healthy living. It has taught me about self-control and discipline.

But my mum is not alone in her worries. The first two photos of myself I posted on Facebook after the great transformation elicited mixed reactions, most being negative.

Interestingly, majority of the cynics are visibly fat, overweight or glaringly obese. In a past Facebook post I scanned, one admitted to having been warned by a doctor to drop the bottle and watch his weight and had even joined a weekend trekking group.

Still, they justified themselves – without being accused of anything – making defeatist comments such as, "mwili mpya tutapewa mbinguni", "you only live once, eat," among others.

Yet, the most bizarre comment was made in Dholuo, perhaps to limit its audience and mask how ironic it was coming from someone who can be described as chubby. It read, "Awuoro (an expression of surprise) fitness. Weyauru ayiech (allow me to continue ballooning or getting fat).

Surprisingly, some of the critics have been reaching out privately, seeking to know how I did it, and if I could help them to equally shed some weight themselves. It shows how important it is to keep an acceptable societal image, regardless of whether you're hurting in private.

At work, I became a ready source of gossip, yet, a few bold colleagues approached me to confirm if indeed I'm not broke, or sick or stressed.

Leaving home the day after the ceremony, my brothers and sisters bombarded me with a lot of advice. They were, however, in agreement on what I should do moving forward – to go eat, and eat some more.

At a time the mention of the word "fasting" instantly brings forth the terrible memories of the Shakahola massacre which has so far claimed the lives of over 400 people, I stood no chance of convincing anyone that I knew what I was doing.

To mum and siblings, I needed to eat like never before, and I was ordered to do so, lest I also die. Mum would later call to remind me to eat so that I don't embarrass her again.

The societal idealisation of a perfect or desired body for someone with a job, or perceived to be financially stable, from my experience, is no doubt an obstacle to healthy living.

Without a strong will or a good support system like the one I have been lucky to have, someone desiring to tone his or her body can easily give up even before starting. It is so easy to slide back to being a "jakom" just to keep up with societal dictates and expectations, health risks such as diabetes and high blood pressure notwithstanding.

But the good news, and probably the biggest lesson I've picked is that those who want you to continue living according to their expectations soon give up when they realise that they no longer have the power to shape your personal choices.

If you persist and they see the results, they will rally behind you, even seek to be part of your journey. It is a glimmer of hope, a silver lining to those desiring to take that step of faith but are still dreadful of a rigid and judgmental society.