Missing Skin

Lately I smell like her,

except where my body is chafed from rubbing on yours too much,

there I smell like blood and flesh and growing skin,

my body is learning the language of her spirit,

paranoid and wanting to be rid,

she reeks of earth and humid,

and a little of toxins seeping in,

Ah! Even herbal is sick and profits are rich,

and lovers see, and climbers learn all too well the terrain of another hill,

and here I remain unable to tale on the bruises on my hell,

or explain missing skin.

Madagascar’s Unique Funeral Rites

Madagascar is one of the few African nations where traditional spiritualism prevails over introduced religions. More than 50% of the island’s population observe indigenous religious practices.

Among these practices is famadihana or the turning of the bones. Malagasy people believe in a strong connection between the living and dead. Burial tombs rise prominently across the island’s landscape. They are built with expense and are  more often than not more sophisticated than the houses of the living. Materials to build the tombs range from stone to concrete and glass windows. The tombs also feature colorful designs and decorations.

The ritual of famadihana brings together relatives and guests for several days. It involves the removal of a dead one’s remains from the tomb after which they are perfumed and re-wrapped in a new burial shroud. This is followed by a dance around the tomb with the corpse to live music. This celebration happens every two to seven years and can prove costly due to the provision of food to guests and relatives. The turning of bones is significant since it helps the living maintain links with the ancestors.

The Mbalantu Women Resplendent in Floor Length Hair

Everything that has been said about African hair is demystified in the Mbalantu tribes of Southern Angola and Namibia. The Mbalantu emerged from European colonization clutching some of their traditions such as making spectacular pottery. It is their headdresses however that have stirred the world. At about twelve years of age, Mbalantu girls begin prepping their hair for eventual headdresses. The girls layer their hair with finely ground tree bark of the Acacia reficens or the omutyuula tree and oils, a mixture which is believed to promote hair growth. This thick mixture is loosened after several years leaving the hair visible. Attached to the hair ends are fruit pips of the bird plum with sinew strings. In preparation for the Ohango Initiation ceremony, the girls’ hair is braided to make four long thick braids known as eembuvi braids. White porcelain beads can be used to decorate the braids.

After initiation, the girls’ status is elevated to that of ovafuko or brides. Another layer of ground tree bark and fat is subsequently slathered on the hair. The braids are then held up and arranged along the sides of the head and attached at the back. The hair will be arranged into different gravity-defying styles throughout the woman’s life. The eembuvi braids were the inspiration behind the Box Braids which gained popularity in the 90s. Celebrities such as Solange Knowles have been profiled wearing them in what can be interpreted as giving a nod to African heritage.  It is unclear whether the tribe’s women still observe some if not all of the hair traditions.

The Mbalantu hair is a spectacular display of the ingenuity of our people, who used available natural resources and protective styling, long before it gained hype. If nothing, the Mbalantu story proves that we may just have all we need to be African!

SHIFTS

Along Muindi Mbingu Street walks two individuals who are in every bit extraordinary. The shorter one is perhaps the most captivating: the tight jeans hugging his bottom almost convince of femininity were it not for a well-trimmed beard; a fashionable black coat overlies a v-necked t-shirt worn low enough to glimpse a few strands of chest hair, and he proudly holds a red handbag and walks carefully. The taller one also sports tight jeans and gestures in the way ladies do when the story being told is particularly juicy. Even more interesting is that no one on the street stares at them more than I do. Everyone else, to my horror, shrugs them off, even my companion who is gracious enough to point out that they are coming from the direction of the University, and I, having attended one too, is well aware of the open-mindedness which pervades in such a setting. This is Nairobi, she sighs, giving no more explanation other than that. Queers find havens in metropolises, of course, but it had never occurred to me that my City was ripe enough for such communities. If they existed, I had always thought they would not be too forward with their tendencies as Kenya is still a conservative nation. I stare at their backs until they disappear into the evening crowd. How wrong I was, I think, Nairobi is as ripe as it can be thanks to a young, cosmopolitan, and liberal population.

The Afro

After walking through a busy street with my afro proudly glistening with coconut oil, my companion remarked, “You are so courageous to walk about with your hair like that.” She also sports natural hair, but, unlike me, ties it up or braids it. In our small town, non-conformance is not encouraged, rather, it is frowned and even prayed upon, and in my friend’s observation, I detected undeserved admiration.

I wear my afro as a stubborn spite to the attitudes of my town’s inhabitants. In the beginning, the older women were the quickest to admonish me, insisting on my untidiness and almost boyish behavior. It is ironic that these women, in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, wore gravity-defying afros, the evidence of which is in my grandmother’s album. My mother- from whom I get the most reproach- resembled an African Queen with her afro licking her mocha skin. I have spent a lot of time sifting through the photos, arrested by the pictures, in all their post-colonial splendor. In one particular one, my grandmother- a slender woman with a narrow, bony face- stands awkwardly at the center of a semicircle of her daughters and daughters-in-law, their unruly young children set at their feet. Their clothes, which may have been in fashion then, are unremarkable and consist of straight skirts fastened just below their breasts paired with ill-fitting blouses. It is their hair however that give life to the setting- black halos rising as if in resistance. My mother says they had no other option back then and I believe her because as soon as weaves, braids, and blow-dryers become affordable and available, we were unabashedly too eager to give our backs to our natural strands. I was sincerely disappointed by these older matrons since I had hoped something about my thick afro would remind them of their lost glory.

In a salon, a young girl screamed, wailed, and jerked as a merciless saloonist burned her scalp to her mother’s instructions of ‘make her look neat.’ I sympathized because I have been this girl and so have my friends, between who we trade horror stories of times we would rather not relive. I, with sorrow that threatens to ferment, wish my mother would have asked what I wanted to be done to my hair; it is she I wish was brave enough to resist society’s standards and inculcate the same to me.

A quote I stumbled upon comes to mind by Salma Deera: One day you will run, and your heels will scrape the ground so hard it starts a trail-blaze for the girls who come after.

And this is why I wear my hair the way I do, to show girls that what grows from their scalp should not be something to conceal hurriedly, that it is beautiful and regal. A while ago, my 7-year old cousin ran her hands through my hair and exclaimed, “It is so soft.” Her awe was inspiring. I live for such moments because then she knew that if my hair can be soft so can hers too.

Other members of the society have expressed concerns about ‘how men find me,’ because, my hair, coupled with my plain, sometimes asexual dressing, must not be attractive to the opposite sex. I try to feign embarrassment at this because nothing of my low number of suitors do I find unsettling. Do my boyfriend’s mind my look? I do not know because I do not live on men’s affirmations.  It would give me immense pleasure however if a girl or a woman, upon the sight of my unapologetic afro, dared to wear her natural hair however she may please. I will for my daughter a better world, in which her hair will be embraced rather than being disapproved.

 

 

 

of being interesting rather than pretty

Growing up, I made an observation that was instrumental to the formation of my sense of being: while my mother was not the most beautiful in the room, she was often the smartest and the most informed.  She never called to attention my looks, rather, she emphasized on intelligence and good grades and enrolled me in schools she believed would inculcate in me brilliance.

A few years after adolescence it dawned on me that I did not boast of the multitude of admirers other girls did; even more worrying was that I did not stress on the qualities they insisted potential boyfriends had to possess. While in Campus, a guy implied that maybe I should consider losing a little bit of weight and dressing better on account of my being single. I was taken aback by the comment, because until, then it had never occurred to me to assess my desirability through the lenses of men. All around me girls were being courted, and pursued, and chased, and flattered, and wooed but often, the men were so unremarkable that I was grateful they were not at my door.

I wish I could say time came to a standstill for my first lover when he saw me like it does in the movies, but truth is, it was love at first wit; it was intense too, and enlightening and engaging. He was a man who knew I had no patience for banalities, and cliches, and conversations of little-thought and he ensured my intellectual thirst was satiated. And that is a man you never forget, no matter how short-lived the fling is. Being the reader that I am, I have stumbled upon women in history, sirens if you may, for whom being interesting was far more important than being pretty and from whom I derive an amount of solace when my oddness becomes too obvious.

Lou Andreas Salome has enamored me the most. She was born in 1861 in St Petersburg, Russia, at a time when Women’s freedom was discouraged and even frowned upon. Her tutor, Henrik Gillot, was the first man to fall in love with her and in addition to instructing her on French and German literature and theology proposed marriage- Gillot was already married and with children. Lou rejected the offer and soon left for Zurich, where she took classes on History of Religion and Dogmatic Theology in the University of Zurich. While there, she meet Paul Ree as well as Friedrich Nietzsche, two accomplished intellectuals, who each proposed to her. She had sexual relations with both men but firmly rejected the notion of marriage. Marriage, she argued places the woman as the man’s subordinate while sexual intimacy is based on equality. She later agreed to marry a Friedrich Carl Andreas on condition that the marriage was not consummated but kept lovers throughout her life. Her longest romantic relationship was with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who was fifteen years her junior. Their love letters, intense and introspective, survive to date. Lou went on to become the first female psychoanalyst and forge a deep intellectual relationship with the famous Sigmund Freud.

Lou was a woman ahead of her time; she pursued education at a time when women were simply content with being married off well. She was the kind of woman for whom men leave empires for. The men who wooed her were not ordinary men, they were accomplished in their own right and most of them were prominent figures in the 20th century. Her intellect, coupled with her independence, made for a lethal combination. Lou was a prolific writer and was one of the pioneers of feminism and in no accounts of her life is she quoted as being pretty.

Theater Escapades

“If only you were in a dress,” he murmurs, biting my earlobe.

I shiver. His hand is trailing up my thighs. On stage, the performance is in full swing. We have lapsed on two scenes during which he rendered me dazed with kisses. His breath is uneven on my neck, and his lips are warm. He tugs at my top to access the top of my breast. I lean back on the chair, mouth open as I am dangerously close to hyperventilation. His hand firmly clasps my mound.

“I am beginning to wish that too,” I manage a response.

I kiss him when he looks up, alternating between gentle and teasing to hungry and feverish. Someone yells a couple of rows down from us. We stop but realize it was intended for the performers, who are doing a good job, I think. We resume watching the play as we catch our breaths. The actors, dressed in traditional attires, are acting out a fable. They break into a Kikuyu song to which I sing along.

“Show off,” he mutters.

I ignore him. It used to bother me that we are not from the same tribe; I, so used to explaining things in my mother tongue, was not enthusiastic about English conversations.

“That’s how jealous I get when you get in the zone with your brothers,” I say.

He leans in then, and soon enough we are tugging at each other’s clothes, our moans drowned out by the drumbeats and the footsteps of the dancers on stage.

“We are wasting the two thousand we paid to watch this show,” I interrupt.

“Then stop seducing me.”

I laugh at this. Minutes into the scene, the door to the theater opens, and a file of about five people trickle in.

“Nooooo,” T exclaims as they pass over our feet to settle noisily on the empty seats on our row. “They had to sit here yani.”  I nod in agreement as the auditorium is quarter-full.

“It is dark, though, they can’t see what we are up to,” I say as my hand finds its way to his crotch.”

“They may not see us, but they will hear when you moan. You have an unusually high pitch you know,” he teases.

I hit his arm. I let him unzip my jeans, and I feel his finger working its way to part my lips.

“Twende home,” his tone is urgent. And promising.

Life Choices

Halfway through supper, I say, “Mum, I’ve decided I want to be a writer.”

She turns to me, putting down her food- Ugali, Sukuma, and beef stew; her favorite that I cooked extra carefully today.

“What?” she gives me time to rescind my statement.

I remain silent. She gives me a look akin to the one she used to give me before thrashing my buttocks with slippers, but I am grown now, and her muscles are not what they used to be.

“So you’ve decided to throw your life away? What is wrong with you?”

She stares at me in the familiar way we stare at Wairegi, our town’s madman.

I am compelled to run and hide.

“Which writer do you know?”

“Ngugi wa…” I start before she interrupts, “if you want to waste your life young lady, you will not do it in my house.”

This is unraveling worse than I anticipated. About two thousand shillings stand between me and poverty and times are different now: where am I supposed to get a house whose rent is 1,000 in 2017? Jameni.

She is seething now. I can tell she wants to say more, but she closes her eyes, offering a prayer, no doubt, for the good Lord to afford her grace. I am, unfortunately, the eldest of her brood meaning it’s a first for her to deal with a child going mad.

Across the room is a framed photo of her and me in a graduation gown: chin up, wide smiles, black spots concealed. My degree has been tucked away in a drawer since.

After an extended moment of silence, she says, “let me tell your uncle you are not going tomorrow then.”

I nod. A meeting was scheduled tomorrow between my uncle and I. He has done well for himself as a departmental manager in a Parastastal and is looking to ‘fix me up somewhere.’ I have spent the last few days dreading the encounter, and my outburst was a desperate attempt at sabotaging it.

She does not address me for the rest of the evening. I tiptoe across the living room to make my presence less obvious. In her room, later on, she is throwing a fit on the phone to an unidentified recipient.

“This girl is too much,” she proclaims, to which I cringe. She has been angry at me countless times before, but this one stings the most. My phone lights up minutes after she goes silent.

“You want to give your mother blood pressure?” My auntie accuses the second I pick up.

“It’s not like that,” I attempt at defense.

She sighs. I curl to myself after hanging up, terrified of the consequences my choices may potentially have on those close to me. I manage a prayer before I sleep. “Lord,” I say, “if you afford me nothing else, give me sufficient courage and strength as well.”

Mr. Basic

Weeks ago, a friend asked me to describe the man sitting beside me now in one word, and I said ‘basic.’ Mr. Basic has just proposed marriage now and rendered me incoherent. We have been here before, in this decent restaurant, even seated around this particular table; I have a vague recollection of fiddling with the salt shaker as I am doing now. I cannot recall when we became exclusive because there are red hearts at the end of Mark’s, Mungai’s, and Ben’s contacts in my phone.

“You are finally through with Campus. You said if I wanted you I had to wait.”

I have no recollection of saying this too.

“I don’t have a job yet,” I manage an argument.

“But I do. I will cover our needs before you get one. Plus my Uncle is well-connected, he will sort you out.” I imagine the apartment we will live in as he says this. I visualize us seated on a sofa facing a wide flat-screen television, our conversations mute.  I will probably insist on a glass table because it pairs well with other inessential middle-class items like the water dispenser sitting pretty at a corner. We would get a bed that does not creak when we have sex like the one in his bedsitter.

We have known each for five years now, the details of which are incomplete and often hazy in my mind. We met in a matatu destined for our hometown in my last year of high school.  He was polite in his intentions: requesting for my phone number so we could build upon the new ‘friendship.’

I remember being overly excited when we resumed school. On that first night, I did not let my cube-mates sleep as I exaggerated on his mocha skin, perfectly aligned teeth, and inviting lips. I would often fantasize us kissing during class, and when it finally happened, it was a soft and sloppy disappointment, nothing like the steamy, hungry kiss I had imagined. Later, I hinted that a little bit of aggressiveness would not hurt.

A waitress sets down our food, and I watch her flat bum as she saunters away.

“Mum asks for you,” he says as he squeezes tomato sauce all over the chips shining with oil.

It dawns on me then why he wants us to get married. It makes sense. His 26 years matches to my 22. His mother- such a lovely woman- and I get along just fine, and I am beautiful enough to incite winks from his friends when they think I am not looking.

Once, after his friends left from an afternoon of watching football and just being too loud he remarked, “Mike says I will regret it if I lose you.” The comment did not come off as flattering as it has been intended. I knew Mike was just impressed because I had cooked and served them food. It was a good wife’s role after all: to cook for her man’s boys.

I know he has other women. We once came upon each other in the supermarket as a tall, curvy woman held loosely on his arm. He spent the next months apologizing, mistaking my silence for anger while it was nothing more than surprise at my not being jealous.

“Your mind is not here,” he observes, and I look from the couple seated two tables from us back to him. The woman has her back to me, but the man’s dark complexion looks almost exotic. They have been so engaged with each other, talking and laughing and not once have I seen either of them glance away.

The aforementioned friend and I have discussed the word discontent at length, otherwise the feeling of wanting better, and almost always not yet conceived things. The word comes to me now, sudden and pertinent.

“I want to be told extraordinary things.”

My assertion startles him. “What?” He asks.

“Nothing,” I shrug, “just something I read.”

The chips taste bland on my tongue. I think back to our conversations and how I drift off to sleep as he goes on about his job, emphasizing on his demanding boss.

“Let me think about it. It is a significant decision to make you know.”

“I know, but I have waited all these years for you.”

“Not quite, you have had other women.”

“I apologized for that, and it won’t happen again. I love only you.”

He says this in a way that makes me think he has said it before, maybe even in a setting such as this.

 

Monica Wangu Wamwere and the Second Liberation Women

February 1992- resistance is simmering at Freedom Corner in Uhuru Park. A group of women, whose sons have been detained as political prisoners by the Moi regime, have congregated to agitate for their release. Among them is Monica Wangu Wamwere, mother to the infamous Koigi Wa Wamwere. Mrs. Wamwere is the most aggravated of the women, as the government holds three of her sons. Also at the forefront is Wangari Maathai, a seasoned demonstrator, and activist. At night, the women are captured huddled together and covered in shawls as the only protection from the cold. The women are clear on their objective: they are prepared to stay for as long as it takes for their sons to be released. The Attorney General has already dismissed them with an ‘I will look into this.’ The debacle is causing Moi more embarrassment than he anticipated. Some of the photos circulated by journalists, such as one of the women chained together, are profound enough to garner the attention of the international community. The women are nothing short of amusing; they chant traditional songs which emphasize on a child returning home.

The government has obviously not anticipated the lengths the women are willing to go when, on March 3, it dispatches police officers to disperse the protesters forcibly. The officers come ready for war, armed with batons, tear gas, and bullets, ready to face off with un-armed women­ the irony is not lost on observers. A handful of women subsequently strip off their clothes. The move scares off the police and shocks the world. In traditional African culture, it is deemed a curse to see your mother, or a woman close to her age, naked. The spectacle makes news headlines and serves to draw more supporters for the womens’ cause. The US and German governments are quick to criticize the blatant display of human rights abuse. Riots and boycotts materialize as ripple effects. The women, dismissed before as a minor nuisance, are morphing into a headache for the regime. They move to All Saints Cathedral, from where they hold daily meetings and embrace their supporters. They prove to be more informed than previously thought, as they distribute leaflets and hold forums on, among other issues, democracy, and freedom of expression. Their efforts bear fruit as on June 25, 1992, when four political prisoners and more on January 19, 1993. What started out as a small resistance act blossomed into a fully-fledged liberation noted down in the political history of Kenya.