Mariam Aboubakar Esperence, GPJ, DRC
Democratic Republic of Congo

In a culture that has long valued overweight women, growing knowledge and health concerns have spurred many Congolese women to take up nzango, a refereed sport featuring jumping, dancing and chanting.

GOMA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO – Nzango is not your average sport.

The field, called the Cercle Sportif here in Goma, is square. The boundaries are defined by red and yellow tape that separate two teams ready to clash.

The players are women. Fat women.

The 22 women on each team face their opponents across the colored tape.

The teams greet each other. The referee blows a whistle to start the match.

And then the aerobic dance-off begins.

One at a time, a player steps forward to jump, dance and chant. Then a competitor from the other team does the same. Teammates cheer on the competitors.

Teams earn points for their movements and the way they change direction. The first team to earn 50 points wins the match.

After a match, all the players form a circle, hold hands and sing to celebrate the game.

More than 300 women age 18 to 65 participate in Goma’s nzango league, says Chantal Kahunga Nyambatsi, chair of nzango sports in Goma.

Like any other sport, nzango requires consistent practice and strong coaching, Nyambatsi says. Trained referees officiate at competitions. Each league has a president.

Jeanne Nakachuba, who has been playing nzango for a year, says she has been rewarded for her efforts.

“Every day I wake up to go to play nzango,” Nakachuba says. “Most women think of nzango as a sport played by women who have nothing to do, but I play it because I know how important it is. It contributes greatly to improving my health.”

Still popular with schoolgirls in some African countries, today nzango is also being used to fight obesity and heart disease in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Historically, overweight women here have been regarded as healthy, local women say. Congolese have long perceived fat women as rich and well-fed by their husbands. Middle- and upper-class women, determined to maintain full figures, often consume fattening foods and refrain from participating in sports.

That cultural norm is changing. Like people around the world, Congolese are becoming more aware that obesity raises women’s risk of heart disease and other health problems.

Nakachuba attests to the benefits of becoming more active.

“Before I started playing nzango, I was so heavy I couldn’t walk a long distance,” she says. “But now I started playing nzango and I feel good.”

Nakachuba says her husband’s support has helped her play consistently. She has his permission to play every day.

Since taking up the sport, Nakachuba feels more relaxed, she says. She gets sick less often.

“I play [the] modern nzango sport entertain myself and get rid of worries even when I feel stressed,” Nakachuba says. “This sport helps relieve me of all forms of illness.”

Nzango plays an important role in the lives of overweight women here, says Anaclet Mpongo, chief of the sports and recreation division of North Kivu province.

“Fat women are encouraged to play this game to fight diseases, such as obesity,” he says. “It was created to help women stay healthy.”

Nzango helps overweight women get healthier and gain confidence, Mpongo says. It’s not uncommon to see a woman who weighs more than 100 kilograms (220 pounds) jump, kick and dance during a nzango match.“I like what women do when they play nzango (CQ),” he says. “They can even be more physically flexible than men. I feel my wife would be very physically flexible, with a smile, if she came here.”

Josephine Kwabo Salumu, a nzango coach, encourages women in Goma to play nzango for its health benefits.

“Contrary to popular belief, nzango is not a mere game but a sport that helps us a lot, particularly women who have too much body fat,” she says.

Dr. Patient Chalukoma of the Heri Kwetu Center, a hospital in Bukavu, a city about 220 kilometers (140 miles) from Goma in the South Kivu province, says sports help women ward off disease, stabilize their blood pressure and burn off fat.

“Unlike a sick woman, a healthy woman can work and become productive and make a contribution to her family, thanks to sports, which are key to healthy living,” Chalukoma says.

As the hazards of obesity become more widely understood here, more people are getting tested for heart disease, he says.

“When a woman is too fat, she becomes more susceptible to diseases, and this is why women badly need to practice sports,” Chalukoma says. “As we have seen, those who do not engage in sports fall prey to high blood pressure and sugar diabetes mellitus.”

Not everyone endorses nzango.

“I cannot allow my wife to go there to jump, despite her being fat,” says Djuma Salumu.

Djuma questions why women would spend their time “jumping” instead of caring for their families.

“It is a sport played by women who do not respect themselves and are immoral,” he says. “Otherwise, why is it, then, that a responsible married woman with children would exhibit her body in motion in front of everyone present on the playing field? That is disrespectful.”

Nyambatsi, the chair of nzango sports in Goma, urges such husbands to take a more appreciative view of nzango.

“When we jump, we fight diseases and become even more physically flexible to be able to perform household chores,” she says.

All women’s sports are gaining popularity and cultural acceptance here, and nzango is no different, she says. She hopes nzango will continue to flourish so more women can experience its health benefits.

“Nzango helps me a lot,” she says. “I used to suffer from rheumatism, and it was not until I started practicing that I felt better and strong at all times.”

Nakachuba plans to keep playing nzango. Now she’s addicted, she says.

“I want to continue engaging in nzango because without sport I cannot live,” she says. “Sports are like a drug that can help relieve all my pains and health problems.”

Nakachuba encourages all women to stay active.

“I invite women to always engage in sports to keep their living safe and healthy instead of staying at home doing nothing and unknowingly developing diseases,” she says. “Sport is a quick fix for fat women’s health.”

GPJ translator Ndayaho Sylvestre translated the article from French.