Photo by Charles Nyiha

“You are a beautiful, wonderful, African woman.” This is what you write to Rhoda on a white sheet of paper. The statement is ordinary, something she has heard before.

But then you add, right below that first statement, “Always remember that.”

It is ordinary, too, but good Lord she weakens. She weakens, she breaks. She breaks because she realizes that you can see that sometimes she does not remember, and that there are things in her life that make her forget. She breaks because there are things that are sitting on her head and shoulders, and you have seen them.

She is sitting on her bed as she reads this, and now she has to lean forward to see the words again because her tears, they blur her vision. There is music playing. There is a moment she is remembering. She is remembering a happiness, a hand that held hers, a body—dark chocolate, Sudan-delicious, 6ft, broad shouldered, home. She knows, oh she knows, that the moment had reached its fullness, and the season of it was over. She is grateful that it is. But you should have seen her eyes as she watched the brutality in the severing. The insults, the lies, the truths, the questions, the war she did not want. You should have seen her try to hold others’ hands after, seen how they looked at her. You should have seen her look at her body, look at it straight and cold and ask, “Is it this?”

You should see Martha, too.

The other day Martha and Sofia approached society and asked for admission. Martha had a buttoned up shirt and a scarf around her neck, and pants on, too. Flat rubber shoes because she had been in heels all day. Sofia was in a strapless dress, tight and tasty, stopping just under her butt. If you were there, you would have seen society nod at and give Sofia a drink, kiss her on the cheek and tell her welcome. You would have seen society turn away from Martha, grin at the man with the big ring and big name. I didn’t like looking into Martha’s eyes. If I did, I might have seen something like France and Pretoria and pain.

Beauty. Unbeauty. Acceptable. Unacceptable. Truth or glorified constructs?

Who knows?

But I can tell you about Rhoda, and about Martha, and maybe about Pretoria, maybe about France. I can tell you it is horrible to fight against your own skin. It is horrible to touch your hair before you sleep, as you look at yourself in the mirror, and wonder why you, why it grows like this on you—it is horrible to believe those who have tried to steal its glory. It is horrible to present yourself in honesty and earnestness and hear the curt, "you are not allowed".  

And what can I say?

I don’t know.

But in a continent whose people have had their heads bowed for about a century, all I can say is that there is a pain in my neck. I will look up now.

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