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“Too Fat to Be an Orphan”: The Moral Semiotics of Food Aid in Botswana

By Bianca Dahl

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The iconography of the African AIDS orphan, captured in National Geographic–style images of half-starved toddlers with distended bellies, inspires humanitarian aid for the continent. In Botswana, stereotypes underlying both foreign-funded and governmental programs for orphaned children—which imply that orphans are underfed and underloved—initially resonated with Tswana people’s anxieties that neglect by overburdened kin results in parentless children going hungry. However, during the past decade international feeding projects began to evolve into elaborate day-care complexes in which village orphans gained exclusive access to swimming pools, DVDs, trendy clothing, and daily meat rations. This article traces the shifting moral semiotics of orphans’ fat and skinny bodies, explaining why new discourses protesting the overfattening of orphans arose in a southeastern village. Metaphors of fat and feeding have become a scale on which the excesses of humanitarian aid and the perceived shortcomings of local kinship practices are weighed. A new kind of “politics of the belly” calls into question relations of patronage around metaphors of fleshiness and dependence on foreign support. In the process, contestations over children’s skinny and fat bodies lead to reconfigurations of the idea of orphanhood.


humanitarianism; HIV and AIDS; orphans; moral semiotics; food aid; Botswana