One day, during a Chemistry lesson in high school, the teacher told me, in jest, to go ask my mother who my real dad was. Ati,
“Wajaruo hawakuwangi weupe hivyo.”
Translation: People from the Luo community are not light skinned.
I laughed it off. He knew my dad and they were a little more than acquaintances, thanks to the number of times my dad was called to school because of one thing or the other. You guy! I was quite the teenager. Sorry Mrs. Gakuya! Also, because Nakuru really is a small town. Ballgum.
In hindsight, I think that’s when I really became aware of my complexion. Previously, no one really voiced out the oddity of my ethnicity and skin tone. It wasn’t strange for me because my parents and siblings were not the darkest breed either. I didn’t think it was a superior, preferred feature, until I came to Nairobi to chase that journalism dream.
As a newbie in Nairobi walking along River road, my attention would be drawn to the women lining up outside dingy looking stalls. “Mrembo ingia tukurembeshe. Utakuwa smart.” It took me a while to understand that they were not keen on my nails or hair. It was my skin they were interested in transforming. I found it baffling, to say the least.
On one end, random men would cat call me (still do) using the phrases ” rangi ya thao/pesa” “pointy” and “msupa,” alluding to how appealing my skin color was. How extra beautiful it made me. I won’t lie. As much as the calls bordered on harassment, there was a sense of, “Oh wow! I am beautiful! The world approves!” Oh youth! The hilarity of it all. On the other end of the spectrum, these women, maybe more keen on making money, thought that my skin still had endless potential on the whiteness scale.
I have never been tempted to see how far I can go, but perhaps that’s privilege speaking.
My dark skinned sisters and brothers may have different stories to tell – about how they were always the ones on the receiving end of nasty, degrading jokes because of the color of their skin; how they were not always the first to be approached by the cute boys in school; and how certain professions were a dream because people like them were not accepted. And so forth and so on.
Sad, unfortunate truths.
Those of us on the lighter end of the spectrum are believed to have had it easier in life. Mostly. That our complexion has at least opened doors that have otherwise been slammed on the faces of the darker counterparts. It might have favored some people, but for some of us, we have had to work as hard as anyone else.
I would, cautiously, like to submit to you that my complexion hasn’t opened no doors for me anywhere! No more than my height has gotten me playing in WNBA league. In fact, ever since the revolution began to get Africans to go back to factory settings – to love themselves proper, the light-skinned humans on this side of the world have had to work even harder to dispel the airhead stereotype. Believe it or not, I get the sense that the darker ones are the privileged ones these days. I am however cognizant of the work that has been put in to unscrew the hinges.
Remember when Lupita Nyong’o made that moving speech about her conversation with God when she was a little girl?
I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin. I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin. And my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter-skinned. The morning would come and I would be so excited about seeing my new skin that I would refuse to look down at myself until I was in front of a mirror because I wanted to see my fair face first. And every day I experienced the same disappointment of being just as dark as I had been the day before. I tried to negotiate with God: I told him I would stop stealing sugar cubes at night if he gave me what I wanted; I would listen to my mother’s every word and never lose my school sweater again if he just made me a little lighter. But I guess God was unimpressed with my bargaining chips because He never listened.
I believe this speech, and the conversations that sprung from it brought the focus nearer home of how oppressed we have been as a people. One of us spoke, on an international platform, during a major event, about just how much our rivers of self esteem issues run deep. How much the larger concept of whiteness had, and continues to, distort our view of beauty.
This past week, watching a feature on one of the local stations about the trend that is skin lightening among Kenyans, I thought of how the dynamics of complexion, colourism and perceived benefits have shifted but remained constant over the years. I don’t know if that makes sense.
The gospel of beauty in diversity has been evangelized across the country, continent. Black is beautiful, in whatever shade. You should feel bold in your skin. Empowered. Embrace your glow. All the chapters and verses have been read, yet ultimately, it still remains a choice issue. Once you hear the truth, do you believe and walk ye in it or decide to seek your version of truth? Both are valid, only if they don’t lead to self destruction. But that is neither here nor there. Some people just want to enjoy the experience, however brief. A young lady interviewed said she began bleaching her skin because she admired her light skinned sisters and thought they were the epitome of beauty. When she began using the creams and pills, people began complimenting her and that affirmed her more than she thought it would. She does not regret her choices. One man was asked if he was happy and satisfied with the choice he had made to lighten his skin;
“No” He answered. “I would be happier if I got something stronger to do the work once and for all.”
I recently encountered on a Facebook group a post by a woman who claimed to have gone back to her original complexion after years of using lightening products. Her own husband had never seen her as a dark skinned African woman. She owed the fact that she had not suffered any of the alleged side effects of bleaching to her using legit expensive products. She did what made her happy at the time, and that’s how life should be lived, she said.
Look. Life is funny. Funny haha and funny weird. Every one has deep sitting insecurities. I hope we can learn to confront our innermost beings and uproot these demons from the roots. The more we keep trimming the shrub edges for aesthetics sake, the more the roots entrench deeper into our souls and suck all the truth that is our ultimate beauty.
Oh, wait. If no one else tells you today, here, catch!
You are amazing, just the way you are!