Fattening Room: The Dying Culture Of The Efiks BY UBONG ANTHONY

In Columnists, Entertainment and Lifestyle, National News, Opinion, Reports

by crossriverwatch admin

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In the days of yore, the ‘fattening room’ tradition of the Efik people of Calabar, Cross River State, was seen as a viable means of preparing a young lady for the challenges of womanhood. But unfortunately today, it has gone through series of reformation and modification due to civilization.

This age-long tradition is primarily meant to give adequate training to young women, as an integral part of preparing them for marriage and home making. Those days, parents sent their daughters to the fattening room due to the belief that African men loved fleshy and rotund women. The concept of the Nkuho (fattening room) is more spiritual than physical, as the father of the girl is expected to go with his daughter using what is called eme (coral beads) to appease Nku (the river goddess of the house) before she is accepted into the fattening room.

The concept is also to show that the parents of the girl are wealthy enough to give their daughter a good life. It involves all-round beauty treatment from head to feet, using what is called ndom (native chalk) and other massage oils made from natural plants. During the period, the girl also eats sumptuous delicacies. The training and beauty therapy is carried out over a period of one month or more while the girls are each housed in seclusion away from the public as they undergo preparation for marriage and womanhood.

According to the custom, a woman is not seen to be ripe for marriage (even if she has come of age and regardless of her educational qualification) until she has undergone the fattening room process. Many families in the past had the belief that without taking their daughters to fattening room, their duties as parents were incomplete.

Christianity and civilization, however, changed all these in recent times.

Among the Efik, there are three known stages of the fattening room: the circumcision stage, which lasts for a period of three months. The practice is meant to reduce the sexual urge of the woman to guard against infidelity when she finally settles down with her husband. The second phase is called Nkuho-Ebuah, for circumcised women who became pregnant before marriage. This exercise is done as soon as she is delivered of her child. She is confined to a room in her family’s compound. The most interesting and popular one is the one that comes after marriage. During that period, the woman is almost completely naked, with just a piece of cloth around her waist; some beads jiggle around her arms while some beads run across her chest. All these are fast going into extinction.

sixty-eight-year-old Mrs Alice Ekpenyong, from Big Qua town in Calabar municipality, agreed that the tradition is generally fading away due to civilization, but that it is still being practiced in villages like Creek Town, Ikoneto, Akpabuyo, among others, where people still respect and hold on to their ancestral culture.

“In the urban towns, it is no longer in vogue, if at all they practice it – but not with circumcision now because a lot of people are becoming enlightened. And these days, every woman wants to remain slim to stay young and appealing to her husband. Feeding the woman to be very fat is no more in vogue; but the bottom line is that these days, a lot of people don’t practice it because of Christianity.

According to the Efik tradition, the fattening room ceremony is performed when a woman has attained puberty in preparation for marriage. In most cases, there must be a ready suitor.

Madam Ekpenyong explained further: “In the olden days, it was compulsory that a woman should go through the process of fattening room to prepare her for marriage and to show her how to take care of her home and her husband; how to cook and do general housekeeping. This is also to demonstrate that the parents of the girl are wealthy enough to take care of their daughter.”

During the period, the lady is pampered and sometimes forced to eat and drink – even when she is not hungry. The food given to her is enough to feed four or five people. This is even as her body is massaged on a daily basis. Even a girl with the most masculine physique will become succulent as a result of the massage.

In this room, no man is allowed access except her would-be husband; and this can only happen when the woman has been pre-informed of his coming. Only members of her immediate family are allowed to go into her room.

After being fed with delicious meals, she will be made to take a nap and relax properly. She is also taught Efik dance steps like the Ekombi, ntimi and ebak-idok to prepare her for the day of her traditional wedding. Traditional dance experts are deployed to teach het the act of dancing.

The highpoint of the fattening room is the out-going ceremony where she is paraded to flaunt her beauty and in the process she is showered with expensive gifts in appreciation of the physical changes the people have seen in her. People come out in large numbers to willingly drop cash.

“The whole essence is not to force people to give her money but for people who appreciate her to come and celebrate with her,” said Mrs Ekpenyong.

After the traditional marriage rites are concluded, the woman goes to her husband’s house.

On whether the male folk still find it fashionable to allow their intended wives to go through the process, Etubom Edet Ekpenyong from Ikot Ishie community said, “Nowadays most men don’t prefer their wives to be in fattening room. Our men nowadays don’t like (plump) women. Times have changed. Socialization with other tribes has changed the perception of people.

“The mindset of our young men has completely changed now. Many of them now believe that a woman is more attractive and beautiful when she is slim; so, they kick against the idea of fattening room for the wife-to-be. You cannot force it on them because you are not the one to marry her. But that is not to say that the tradition has died completely. People still practice it in the villages.”

Also, Mr. Eyo Asuquo of the Obutong Royal House noted that with civilization, it has become completely unnecessary for a woman to be fat. “Times have changed and nowadays, we prefer slim women who will not age fast. They are more appealing than the (plump) ones; so the idea of fattening room is no longer interesting. But like they say: ‘different strokes for different folks’. Other men may prefer it, but I don’t.”

Mrs. Angela Adie, a 69-year-old widow who had gone through the fattening room herself, said: “It was a beautiful experience in those days, but this has really changed and there is no such thing as fattening room anymore. No woman who sees another looking slim and trim wants to go and fatten herself. It is a forgotten tradition. Also, the society is different in modern times and no lady wants to leave school to go and stay in the fattening room.”

As tradition demands in the course of the marriage rites, and primarily to forbid the woman from looking for money outside her marriage, during the traditional marriage rites, her suitor is asked to pay a certain amount of money comprising all denominations (of the currency) in circulation. In those days, it was usually 12 pounds. With the would-be husband doing this, it puts the woman in a position where she can no longer go out to look for money. This is meant to prevent the girl from flirting.

After the traditional marriage rites, the girl is not directly handed over to her husband but to her father-in-law, who will be duly informed of the fact that she has been given to the family in good health and she must be well taken care of. In the event of any unresolved issue between the husband and the wife, the father-in-law is required to return her to the family and the bride price will be refunded.

The Ibibio people of Akwa Ibom State also practice the fattening room tradition. Their culture is somewhat similar to that of the Efik, but that of the Ibibio people is called Mbopo.

Today, no girl wants to get fattened by spending even one month in the fattening room. Many of the young girls now consider it a waste of time and would not attempt it even if they are paid to do so.

According to Mrs. Veronica Effiom from Calabar South, “The fattening room practice, which we call in our language Nkuho, is an old practice and I am so happy that it is fading in our generation. I don’t like it and I would have resisted it if I had been asked to do it. Now our young men can dump you for a slimmer girl when you become too fat. I am married and my husband likes me the way I am and I am not planning to be too fat.”

It is an undisputed fact that today’s men have soft spot for smart and slim ladies whom they feel more comfortable with when going out for social events. Though while some men loathe marrying obese women, very few of them still prefer to go with the extremely robust ladies.

But investigation shows clearly that the advent of Christianity and Western culture is gradually phasing out the fattening room practice in Efik kingdom, and unless the custodians of the culture make efforts to revive it, it may finally be consigned to the threshold of history.

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