Sisters Sharon Chepchirchir and Lydia Chepkemboi have a rather weird dietary fascination. The Kenyan pair have been eating soap since they were just little children.
Standard Media reports that the sisters eat either hard carbonated soaps or lick washing powder.
The addiction was a phenomenon older women in their family tried to wean them off, yet for big sister Sharon, there was no way she was going to give up.
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Sharon said, “They (her grandmother and mother) would beat me but I didn’t stop eating soap. I continued stealing soap until they gave up. I would sneak into bathrooms, even neighbours’, and steal soap.”
When she was in secondary school, Sharon said she “would sleep in a secluded cubicle because I didn’t want my colleagues to know I ate soap. I would buy less of what was considered necessary so I had extra cash for soap.”
The addiction continued through her pregnancy in 2014 when she was 19. Sharon recounts asking the doctor if consuming soap was okay for the baby.
“The doctor said it was the first time he was encountering a soap eater. He also said he was unaware of any condition that makes people eat soap. He, however, said soap was not poisonous,” she added.
Strangely, Sharon and her sister Lydia did not grow up together. Lydia was raised up by another relative, yet the younger sister likes her soap just as much.
About six years ago, Sharon noticed that Lydia was keeping a bar of soap in her pockets.
“I asked what she was doing with it and she said she eats soap. This brought us closer because we borrow soap from one another,” confessed Sharon, identifying the odd basis of sisterly bonding.
For the villagers in Kibochi, the sisters have been a source of puzzle for years. It is not uncommon to see people coming into their home to see Sharon and Lydia munching on soap.
But as Lydia explains, although others find them weird, eating soap comes naturally to them.
“I am also shocked that I eat soap. I have worked hard to hide the habit but some of my friends know about it. They say I am not normal. I want to stop but I just can’t,” the 17-year-old is quoted as saying.
The helplessness Lydia feels is shared by Sharon who has also been battling her addiction for some two years.
Sharon once spent over 10,000 Kenyan Shillings or about $100 on prayers begging for divine intervention. Her grandmother believes the family has been cursed.
In spite of their concerns, both women say they have been told they are fine by medical professionals.
Sharon pointed out she “recently visited a hospital in Kapsabet and I was told my health is perfect. I’m yet to understand why I eat soap.”
On her part, the mother of the sisters, Monica Jebet, has almost given up hope of getting her daughters to stop eating soap. Monica herself never had that addiction.
“I did all I could to stop this habit, including hiding soap and caning them but it didn’t work. I am asking specialists to help us understand this mysterious behaviour. Some medics say eating soap could be genetic,” said Monica.
Monica’s information about the genetic basis for certain eating disorders is not out of place.
According to a 2004 publication by Wade Berrettini titled “The Genetics of Eating Disorders“, some odd feeding choices can be connected to “recent behavioral genetic findings [that] suggest substantial genetic influence on these disorders.”
The condition of eating very odd things is medically recognised as pica.
The American National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) defines pica as “an eating disorder that involves eating items that are not typically thought of as food and that do not contain significant nutritional value, such as hair, dirt, and paint chips.”
NEDA notes that there may be certain dangers that come with eating things such as soap.
In similar vein, the sisters have been warned of certain health consequences even if it appears they are doing well now.
Dr. Mark Kiptoo, a Kenyan oncologist, points out that some of the chemicals involved in making soap are toxic to the digestive system of human beings and they pose long-term effects.
“The chemicals can damage the kidney and liver if consumed in large quantities for a long period of time,” Dr. Kiptoo noted.
He added that he would want for the young women to seek medical specialists for tests so as to undergo blood and tissue analysis.