Out of Africa
The brave ones, or their nosy children, come closer to look over your shoulder and walk off muttering and giggling. But you keep yourself on display, because you hope the more of you they see, the more of you they will believe is actually human.
Their nosiness reminds you of the girls who ran to you at Guangzhou airport chanting something in Mandarin between excited smiles and squeals. You remember how they grabbed and touched your dreadlocks. You remember how one of the girls pulled out her cellphone and typed something on it with small pale hands. You watched as the slits she had for eyes read something on the screen and then she said, “You hair pretty”
“Is that a translator on your phone?” you asked her, moving your head around, trying to dodge the pats from her friend’s hand.
“She like your hair,” the girl repeated her meaning, pointing at her friend, who was still excitedly trying to touch your dreadlocks. You remember how you were disarmed. How you smiled and let her examine your hair. Were you condoning the common ownership of a black woman‟s hair or was that a display of tolerance?
You wonder if tolerance and not treating people who look different as if they were zoo animals, is a product of education and exposure to the world. But then you think of the rich American brats at the summer camp you ran in Kinetikit during your gap year. Who, when you tried to show them how to do an activity or tell them it was lights out, would say, “Shut up! You‟re from Africa; I don‟t have to listen to you”. And you remember how the camp organisers told you to smile, because for some reason you just weren‟t smiling enough, or you would ruin a teenager‟s summer.
You remember walking in the Ayasofya, its marble floors wrinkled and painfully etched with the memory of earthquakes. Overlooking you were ancient paintings of Christianity and Islam, side by side. You struggled to connect with a history that did not include your people, who may have been despised at the time. But you were drawn by the symbolism of religious tolerance and coming together in painful earthquake times. You longed for a racial tolerance and you wondered where this tolerance was lost. So you thought that maybe you were being hard on them. I mean, maybe you stared the first time you saw white or Indian women. Maybe you tried to grab the locks of her silky hair.
The ships below sail your mind from your notebook to Lagos. To memories of a visit where you felt you belonged. You are ashamed now of the pride you felt when you basked in compliments about how you were a lighter shade of black; “Are you South African or Kenyan?” they asked. “South Africans are beautiful, not dark like us”. But out here, brown is all the same. There is no yellow-bone privilege. It does not matter the shade. You miss seeing black women wearing their copper and brown Peruvian and Brazilian weaves and big black afros, walking into a hotel in Lagos. You miss seeing the birthday girl, wearing a pink sash with the words “Miss Lagos” stitched across it, wearing a long black dress that ran its material over every visible and secret curve of her body. You miss watching her walk into the hotel and command a table of the best French Champagne to celebrate her 21st birthday. You miss her friends‟ short mini-skirts and printed peplums. You miss how some of them wore dresses and pants made of “African print” fabrics. You miss the way some of them wore the latest trends hot off the pages of the latest magazines and not seeming any less African. You miss the way the whole restaurant would stare at each one walking in, one after the other, with stares that were not threatening or loathing or ashamed, but appreciative and often curious.
You miss the way Lagos girls looked at you; sized up your hair and make-up by whatever standard they liked on that day, and walked off feeling more beautiful. The way they did not care that you looked foreign.
You miss measuring the size of their ass against yours, and sometimes coming up short. You miss watching women of your colour commanding appreciation from all kinds of women and men in ways that were not taboo. You feel superficial, as you miss having your beauty measured against your own kind.
Because yesterday, you took a selfie outside a store called “Gratis” in Istanbul, and giggled that everything in the store must be free, with the two blonde Afrikaans girls and the red haired male tourist with you on the trip. When you reviewed the selfie you felt like you stuck out repulsively among them. Then a group of young Turkish looking men told the other girls how pretty they were as they annoyed them with their advances. While you stood awkwardly aside, trying not to be seen, but wanting desperately to be noticed.
You wondered when you loathed yourself so much.
You are nostalgic. You miss hearing Kabelo‟s “Ngicela ukuhamba nawe” and singing along to the words. You wonder if it is okay, even for black men, to sing that way about black women‟s‟ bodies. But you are too desperate for home and belonging to care. A stranger‟s back that presses against your own as they take a picture of the ships sailing across the bay startles you back into the present. Maybe they didn‟t mean to, but it‟s the first physical contact you have had with a stranger on this trip. Maybe the display is working. Maybe their fear and ignorance is beginning to wear off, you think. But then you sneeze, once, and then again. And a third time too many. You are reaching for your purse, reaching for some tissues. And they begin to move away in panic. After a few sneezes, your hay fever has failed you. The café owner walks over to let know “No Ebola allowed here.” You try to explain that‟s it‟s an allergic reaction to the rose bed behind you. He tells you he doesn‟t speak English. He tells you to leave…in English.
And then walks off.
You are the dark brand face of a hemorrhagic disease some three thousand kilometres away because you sneezed. Suddenly you fear your own display. The stares are no longer curious. They are no longer excited. No one is taking pictures. Some are moving away slowly, more of them briskly. Some are standing just staring at you. Challenging. You are afraid. You are alone. You think of the reports you read about restaurants and shops in Thailand and Korea with signs at their doors reading “No Africans”, an uninformed fear, or precaution, that all black people suffer from Ebola. You think back to your trip to Mozambique and are convicted by how you kept your distance from the local people, out of a fear of contracting malaria. Or when you joked with friends about making sure you don‟t befriend anyone from anywhere “north of the Zambezi River” until “this Ebola thing” blows over.
You stand up to leave. They grab their children and dash off in different directions. You are left with the cries of those children reaching for your eardrums from distant places you can‟t see, and then slipping until faint and no more. You are alone, except for a few men who stayed behind. Their eyes are threatening. You move forward to leave. They remain stationed. You swear you see another smile. You see another caressing your skin and your behind with his eyes. The same way that store manager did when you ran back to spend the last of your last Turkish Lira on those sunglasses. Or the Chinese men whose eyes followed you as you walked down the beach on Hainan Island. Or when you were shopping downtown for cheap souvenirs in Sao Paulo. Or walked into the hotel elevator in Madrid. Those men who, when you caught them staring at you, would quickly look away, offended. Not out of respect for you, but from the self-damning shame of finding you attractive. Those scare you, because you don‟t know how dark their fantasies of exploring a dark woman might be.
You push through the remaining men, the last kick of your dying display. One of them grabs your arm and twists it. He mutters something and the others laugh. They move closer. He moves his grip from his arm to your face. He holds your chin between his thumb and index finger. His eyes are a muddy green covered by a hanging forest of dark eyebrows. His olive skin is weathered; maybe from drinking, definitely from smoking, as he breathes foreign words laced with tobacco onto your face and the others laugh, again.
His face is analysing your skin; like fine cocoa granules moulded into a face. You struggle from his grip only to walk into more grips; from different hands, because a black woman‟s body is for common ownership. On every visible and secret curve of your body. You struggle, and struggle some more to keep the glass sheets over your eyes from shattering into stinging tears. You are saving them to stain your pillow with muddy foundation. You struggle until you break away.
And now you sit in your hotel room nursing the bruised brown of your skin. It will never turn into a pale shade of white. You think about the interview on the talk radio station back home, about why it is not okay to mock black women‟s bodies. You remember the emotional voice of the woman who called in describing the struggles she had with the voluptuous body that carried her. You remember the men who called in saying it did not matter what anyone thought or said or did, and she should be proud of her body. The glass sheets over your eyes do not shatter. If people only get a certain amount of tears to cry about one thing, you‟ve long used up your ration. You resolve to go and report the men to the police, even though you don‟t believe it will make a difference.
But you will keep yourself on display, because you hope the more of you they see, the more of you they will believe is actually human.
Andiswa Onke Maqutu | 2014 | B00OM907TO