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Category Archives: Politics

The Exoticisation and Otherisation of the Afrikan by the Afrikan

Written by Doreen Gaura for POVO Journal 2014: Inaugural Women’s Edition

In the last decade or so we have seen an increase in Afrikan visibility and participation in the marketing of the continent as a commercial and creative hub. We have embarked on re – branding the image of Afrika i.e. moving away from the traditional Afro-pessimistic narrative to a more positive vibrant one as well as reclaiming the marketing rights of our own continent and cultures. This paradigm shift has reaped benefits for more and more, mostly young, Afrikan designers, artists and entrepreneurs both on the continent and in the Afrikan diaspora.
It is a cause for celebration particularly in light of the reductive, Afro – pessimistic narratives that have plagued us for centuries and enabled the violent dispossession and subjugation of our people. However, I fear that while it has created room for Afrikans and our cultures in the global market as well as facilitated cultural exchange amongst ourselves as Afrikans on a much larger scale, I feel that this new visibility and celebration of our various cultures and the different aspects thereof has done very little to facilitate a shift from the exoticisation of the Afrikan and Afrikan culture.

If anything, it would appear to have not only validated it because that same narrative is now being vocalised by Afrikans “so it must be true”, but we now participate in the exoticisation of ourselves and our cultures.

I can personally think of many examples of this that I have either observed or encountered personally over the years both as a Zimbabwean immigrant living and working in Cape Town, South Afrika and as a Zimbabwean emigrant returning home every year for a visit. During my last visit to Zimbabwe I was called “exotic” by strangers for spotting natural/afro-textured hair and donning afro inspired clothing and accessories. I found this both very problematic and somewhat offensive at the same time even though on all three occasions it was intended to be a compliment.

The term “exotic” does not sit well with me, particularly when it is said in reference to people (of colour) or to POC cultures and heritages and this is because of the historical baggage that comes along with that term. Historically, and even in the present day, the term exotic mostly serves the purpose of propping up and sanctioning the otherisation of the “exotic” subject so as to fetishise and objectify them/it making them/it inferior to what is considered the “norm”. This thinking operates on the premise that there is a singular norm and anything that deviates from this alleged norm then automatically becomes unusual and abnormal.

The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the US defines exoticisation as:
…a process by which a human figure is cast as foreign, not in the concrete sense of belonging to a foreign country or ethnic group, but in the phenomenological and ethical sense of being “other.” The other is considered an object of interest and contemplation for the viewing subject, who presumably represents a cultural norm. The hallmark of exoticization in European and American literature is the construction of the other as strange and mysterious—often in some desirable or attractive but nevertheless distanced way—as if she did not exist within a plausible cultural or psychological context.

What I take issue with when I’m referred to as exotic, particularly by fellow Afrikans and more especially by fellow Zimbabweans is that the things that aren’t foreign about me BECAUSE I’m a brown/black Zimbabwean or Afrikan are the exact things that my viewer considers exotic and distances themselves from; things such as not relaxing my hair or not wearing a weave or even not identifying as a Christian but instead as an Afro – spiritualist. This of course speaks to the politics of decolonisation and betrays to what extent we are really a nation (and perhaps even a continent) of Anglophiles whose idea of normal is really Euro-centric and it is often through this Anglophile/ Euro-centric lens that we engage with our cultures or identities and wind up falling into the trap of commodifying them as opposed to promoting them.

The commodification and exoticisation of ourselves, our cultures and our identities also seems to entrench the socio economic and political issues that already plague our communities. It appears to disenfranchise certain communities (particularly the rural ones) who by the way are usually the ones who preserve, live and identify with these cultural aspects more than those who wind up profiting from commodifying and commercialising said cultures. We end up replacing the current perpetrators of the exploitation of our people and our cultures. Also it is very problematic how we seem to be only embracing our cultures because we feel that there is business to be made from them for as long as the west is still enamoured by the idea of the exotic other.

The exoticisation of Afrikans is nothing new and we have seen this in stories like the Allan Quartermain series and various other aspects of pop culture that romanticise and fetishise the idea of Afrika as an endless majestic wilderness filled with adventure and “primitive but mysterious and alluring jungle people”. It is this sort of exoticisation that we seem to have internalised and adapted somewhat. Since the emergence of Afropolitanism, which has come under much justifiable criticism we have seen more and more young Afrikans appearing to be engaging with both their own as well as other Afrikan cultures. I say appearing because of late I have wondered to what extent most of us actually engage, if at all, with the plethora of Afrikan cultures we are enthusiastically commodifying and consuming.

I started to question this when I noticed that in conversations with fellow young people, be it in South Afrika or Zimbabwe, around “afro-print” couture for example, most people treated the plethora of prints being used in the fashion industry as though they all emerge from a homogenous culture, called “Afrikan”. Not many bother to learn more about the origins of the prints they were using or buying and what, if any, significance or meaning they hold to the bearers of that particular culture. Because we use whiteness as the standard or default for normal, modern, urban, progressive, sophisticated etc we appear to be more interested in engaging with our identities using Euro-centric rules and norms i.e. moving away from the roots of said identities while maintaining the things that have received the West’s endorsement and approval and that can fit seamlessly into the neoliberal capitalist imaging of the world at the expense of the sacred aspects of our identities. What appears to be a celebration and promotion of Afrikan identities is in most instances a celebration and promotion of Western identities and norms just with an Afrikan twist to it.

It is true that doors have been opened up and conversations started about our Afrikan cultures with business opportunities being provided for our Afrikan designers but to what extent are the designers engaging with the cultures they are “marketing” in order to be considered representatives of said cultures? Is a Kente inspired printed fabric the same as a Capulana print one and therefore can be used interchangeably? Are the symbols in these prints just meaningless pretty squiggles and designs on a piece of cloth or do they represent something? To what extent are the rest of the beneficiaries of those cultures being included in this distribution of their identity? Is the appropriate respect being awarded to the sacred aspects of the things we are marketing? Is commodifying Afrikan cultures creating multiple and nuanced narratives or just creating an illusion of representation and adding an Afrikan voice to the already existing reductive narrative of the “exotic other”? In my opinion these are all pertinent questions that elicit the necessary conversations that I believe we should be having as young Afrikans.
That we are not is indeed problematic or has the potential to be. Don’t get me wrong, I am not entirely against the marketing of our cultures ourselves as I am for the idea of (re)discovering, (re)claiming, and (re)framing/branding our identity first as black Afrikans then as members of various ethnic and cultural groups that fall under that banner (of Afrikan) that is removed from the imposed monolithic common identity that is “human” which is usually understood as a synonym for Europhile but I believe that we need to stop viewing and identifying ourselves using a Westernised/ white gaze.

Others may wonder if it is still necessary to be talking about such things and if these things still matter but for as long as we and the rest of the world determine our value by our ability to produce Afrikan flavoured versions of Western convention and form because we are “inferior” we still have lot of talking, learning and unlearning to do. Of course, there will always be the risk of opening ourselves up to continued exoticisation by others through this promotion and celebration of ourselves and our cultures, that is unavoidable, but at least we can aim to dismantle the ever reductionist narrative somewhat and more importantly we can cease to legitimise and reinforce the problematic racialised inferiority imposed on us by ideas of Euro-centric supremacy.

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Linguistic Exclusion: War on Words

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written by Doreen Gaura for Africa on the Blog

A couple of months ago, I found myself smack bang in the middle of a debate on the injustices of colonialism and its persistent legacy and the impact thereof on post colonial Afrikan states and the Afrikans therein with a Caucasian man who identifies himself as “half Italian, half French”. My European counterpart was not only defending colonialism but he was also justifying it and I of course was challenging his assertions that colonialism was possibly one of the best things to have ever happened to Afrika but this debate is not the focus of this post; what happened during the debate is.

As we exchanged words and opinions, and in some instances rather heatedly I must admit, things took a sudden turn for the worst when I made (in hindsight) the mistake of referring to my opponent by the all too common familiar and most times endearing Zulu/Xhosa/Ndebele termbhudi which means brotherI now consider this to have been a mistake as I believe I may have been too generous in my use of that South African vernacular familial term of acceptance and inclusion.

I now realise that it may have been overly presumptuous and naïve of me to think that this man who could not have been more than a couple of years older than me; who had spent the last fifteen years of his life in South Africa; was not only familiar with that word but also understood what it meant. It is a very common word after all. Now, had I said mfanami perhaps he’d have had the right to be offended or feel slighted or as he put it “insulted” but I used bhudi which is really a term of endearment, camaraderie and respect.

Nevertheless, despite the ugliness that ensued, I did manage to take away something from that experience and that is, his outburst spoke to an issue greater than our individual egos, opinions, perceptions and biases and spoke to the greater racial inequality and idea of white supremacy that still exists in the world today and more specifically in Southern Africa.

I, a brown Afrikan woman, had dared to deviate from the prescribed and accepted norms and standards of acceptable communication, even if for only a moment, and in doing so, I had offended my peer so much so that he felt deeply affronted as he did not appreciate this deviation that forced him to leave his comfort zone and site of privilege that is English and venture into mine that is a Nguni language. This event presented for him an improbable upset of the power dynamic that according to patriarchy and white supremacy, positions him above me and forced my fellow interlocutor to wade in waters that made him the one who was vulnerable – even though, if we’re to be honest, given the current structure of systemic male and white dominance, such a dynamic would be a mere illusion or superficial at best, however many brown vernacular words I may have thrown at him in that moment.

I have been lauded by white people and brown people alike for being “well spoken and articulate” in both my written and spoken English on innumerable occasions so my use of vernacular in that moment had nothing to do with an inability to convey my opinion logically and eloquently but let’s just say for a moment that had been the case, would I have been allowed to state my position in the language most comfortable to me and still be taken seriously? Of course not.

It is 2014 and people of colour still have to bend over backwards to accommodate whiteness as whiteness is the presumed and imposed transcendental norm or default setting for communication. It’s the determinant of any kind of “civilised and intellectual” interaction and our entire existence as a species.

It’s been my experience in South Africa that Afrikaans speaking South Africans who speak only two of the eleven official languages i.e. English and Afrikaans, often ask why I have not learnt Afrikaans in the years I have been in the country, never mind the fact that I speak isiZulu, isiNdebele and I know basic isiXhosa in addition to English. Basically, I am conversant in four official South African languages as opposed to just their two. It does not make sense to them why I would prioritise any of the indigenous languages over the second imperial language of my host country because apparently it is not enough to be dexterous in multiple languages if that dexterity is in languages that are not situated in imperialist linguistic whiteness.

This is not exclusive to South Africa though but extends to other countries in the world, including the US. In 2008, Afrikan American philosopher, George Yancy found himself in a position where he was expected to defend/justify his use of Afrikan American Vernacular English (AAVE) a.k.a Ebonics in the book The Philosophical I: Personal Reflections on Life in Philosophy at a conference convened by the American Philosophical Association to a white fellow philosopher. In an interview with C.S. Soong he recounts this experience and rightly attributes his colleague’s audacity to confront him for writing his chapter in the book in AAVE to the fact that the man thought that Yancy was “using an ersatz language, a child-like language, an inferior language, and that that language was incapable of communicating brilliant and profound philosophical ideas”.

The world has for a long time considered Ebonics to be ‘slang,’ ‘mutant,’ ‘lazy,’ ‘defective,’ ‘ungrammatical,’ or ‘broken English’ and such characterizations are not only incorrect but they are also very demeaning to say the least. Afrikan American actor and producer Bill Cosby is also guilty of completely dismissing brown vernaculars as illegitimate languages. A meme has made the cyber global rounds over the last several years which contains words he allegedly espoused during his speech in 2004 at a public event, championing respectability politics that are amongst other things, centred on language. This meme condemns the perpetual use of Ebonics in brown communities and justifies the continued oppression and marginalisation of people of colour in the US because of their refusal to do away with their “primitiveness” which, according to Cosby, lies, in part, in their vernacular. Of course, some have come out to say that Cosby did not actually say the things in that meme but the fact remains that someone did say it and what’s worse is a lot of people endorsed it, including brown people.

My greatest concern around linguistic exclusion, does not emerge from a place of how white people view and value us brown people and our linguistic identities but it instead emerges from a place of how we view and value ourselves in this seemingly never shifting paradigm. As brown people, we ourselves have generally become the guardians of linguistic whiteness, persecuting each other for “defiling” the master (pun intended) piece that is the European language system, British/American Standard English to be precise. We justify its dominance and attack any attempts to elevate our own languages or variations of the colonial languages imposed on us that exist on the continuum we have today – with Standard English as the acrolect and varieties closest to the original creole/pidgin as the basilect.

We also tend to laugh and shame each other for the different and diverse ways in which we express ourselves in Standard English as well as in our various forms of local Englishes. I cannot count the number of times I have heard South African radio personalities like T-bo Touch, for instance, repeatedly mock Nigerian Pidgin English, obviously without appreciating it for the powerful weapon of resistance that it and other pidgins and vernaculars have been in the past and can still be today. Nigerian musician and revolutionary, Fela Kuti understood this and this was evident when he declared to journalists in an interview “You cannot sing African music in proper English. Broken English has been completely broken into the African way of talking, our rhythm, our intonation.

Pidgin English is, much like AAVE, often referred to as “Brokin” English which suggests  that it’s “incorrect”, “impure” or “debased” however, many people, myself included, feel that the “Afrikanization” of language and by extension, communication, must not only be considered valid/ legitimate but also equal. Pro Ghanaian English linguistic scholars in Ghana advocate for such a recognition in their country as necessary and claim that the recognition of a variation of English would reflect the cultural distinctiveness of Ghana and I am inclined to agree with them. Besides, the language imposed on us cannot remain immune to resistance forever surely? As the late Chinua Achebe so eloquently put it “The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use”.

In my opinion, a true recognition of brown vernaculars and Englishes will greatly aid the empowerment of our people as it will challenge the subtle politics of exclusion of Afrikans. Too often, we are undermined or dismissed as unintelligent and backward because we cannot express ourselves fluently or effectively in the imposed British/American Standard English; simply because our languages are not considered worthy or equal. Perhaps, it is because of that dismissal of our vernaculars and Englishes that some of us unapologetically choose to leave the site of white privilege that is English from time to time and resort to our Mother Tonguewhile at the same time refusing to be excluded, ignored or dismissed any longer because of it.

 

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Yindaba Kabani Nxa ndilahl’umlenze: That Time When I “Hung Out My Thighs For All To See”

Written by Doreen Gaura for iamTehn 

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So it was a regular Saturday morning (and by morning I mean well after midday) and I was chilling at home, you know? Vegeing out, minding my own business, dealing with my most recent existential crisis (I get a lot of those and quite frequently too) of whether or not getting out of bed and showering was something that featured in my immediate future when my phone went off. It was a whatsapp message. “Could it be Great Mother Universe stepping in to rescue me from the prospect of a dreadful day of planlessness brought on by that insidious devil called brokeness?” I wondered as I excitedly picked up my phone to open the message. I could barely contain my excitement I was almost certain I was going to need to open a bottle of wine right there and then and take a swig straight from the tap just to calm my nerves when lo and behold, right before my eyes, was a message from one of my uncles instructing me to change my whatsapp profile picture right before he proceeded to question my sanity. o_O!

I was so angry I almost did actually open that bottle and take that swig but because I was operating in rationing mode due to my most recent post holiday financial crisis and also, well, because I am not an alcoholic (of course) I opted to make a really strong cup of filter coffee instead. That and ignore the message. I have a general rule not to respond to anything whilst I am angry, especially if it’s coming from family, friends or jobage people a.k.a. colleagues. My weekend shot on by, in that hateful bullet-speed way weekends tend to do without any further incidence. Monday arrived, uninvited as usual, *blegh* and yet another message pertaining to the offending image found its way to my whatsapposphere but this time it was from another uncle, whose approach, to his credit, was a lot more tactful because he first acknowledged its “artistic” value (bless his heart) before telling me that he considers it inappropriate. I again chose to not respond instead waited another couple of days before I eventually did.

During this waiting period I experienced various emotions; of which, to be honest, most of them were really just a variation of anger; and also drafted and redrafted my response to them, all the while leaving the controversial image, right where it was, as my profile picture. After venting to friends, consulting the ancestors and battling with myself over what to do I eventually respectfully responded to both uncles inviting them to a mature and respectful dialogue on the issue of my (exposed) thighs and my identity as a post-colonial/ Afro feminist, Afrocentric Pan-Afrikanist and Afro Spiritualist woman.

Outside of the obvious personal/subjective elements that this whole situation just by its very nature presents, there are greater issues that speak to public politics as well as identity at play. This seemingly minor debate goes beyond my whatsapp profile picture, power struggles within my family and my uber sexy thighs (yes, I have decided that they are uber sexy) but speaks to various problematic issues that exist within our communities, especially in Zimbabwe. It is really because of those issues that I’ve got my knickers all bunched up in an uncomfortable knot and has left me feeling some type of way and I’ll quickly highlight two of them here.

  1. One of my uncles, rather predictably, pulled out the “our culture” card and I felt compelled to inform him that in recent years I have made the conscious decision not to put too much stock in the dictates of our quasi “Afrikan” culture as much of it is grossly contaminated by the influence of our colonisers and their religions. It has, in the main, become so bastardized that much of it, and how we engage with it, makes a mockery of our pre-colonial/”authentic” ancestral heritage. It is true that cultures evolve and some may argue that is what happened with our cultures on the continent as they have done most everywhere else in the world but what people do not take into consideration is the conditions under which our cultures “evolved” i.e. oppression, colonisation and slavery. When the occupiers of our lands came, they observed and judged our societies and the way we lived. They decided that our way of life was wrong, they interpreted it using their own understanding and in certain countries, like SA for example, they decided to codify our laws using this understanding and make them secondary to their own which they deemed superior.

It is worth noting that many of our societies had more “revealing” dress codes in those days and the sexualisation of the black body as we know it today (both female and male) is as a result of the adulteration of our cultures and it has reconfigured our moral compass to align itself with that of the colonial masters, ultimately dividing our communities by not only introducing foreign definitions of masculinity and femininity; creating binaries in societies that traditionally had a lot of grey areas but also by creating new hierarchical structures that are more oppressive and destructive e.g. patriarchy.

  1. My uncle also pointed out that according to our “Afrikan” culture (because we must remember ka that Afrika is a country with one culture, one chief and one donkey and plough) certain parts of the body are not meant for public consumption and true as that may be this is not true to the parts in question here and as I have already highlighted, back in the day, and in very few places today, boobs, thighs and buttocks were the order of the day in our communities’ fashion trends, from the oldest gogo to the youngest little whippersnapper in the village. The female body is sacred. This was true then and this is true today and our people knew that respect of this body was not only the responsibility of the soul in it but also the responsibility of all who gazed upon it and that is why it was not necessary to impose morality and ensure personal safety and bodily integrity by covering it up.

This kind of thinking that informed my family’s intervention plays out almost daily in public spaces where in our cities and villages, women are subjected to being harassed and stripped by mobs of mostly men, for donning clothes considered indecent and you have countries like Uganda that have even criminalised the wearing of mini skirts. The notion that certain parts of the female body being exposed automatically translates to an open invitation for anyone to help themselves to it, be it by physically taking it forcefully, or by hurling verbal abuse at a woman and her body and turning around and placing the responsibility and blame on the victim of their violation not only vindicates but also condones the alarmingly increasing levels of gender based violence in our societies. It also supports the notion that we (women) are minors and that our bodies do not belong to us but instead belong to the men in our communities giving them the go ahead to define and dictate how we should live in them and for the men to do with as they please. What is particularly troubling is that instead of men (and other women) standing with us to fight these heinous forms of oppression and violation which are the ones that actually go against our authentic culture, they endorse them.

The controversial image that is my profile picture when captured and posted as such was never meant to be sexualized and by extension controversial. The focus when captured was not on my thighs but on my feet and the water and it was in this spirit it was posted which begs the question “who is really responsible for any discomfort in this context? The subject of the image or the one engaging with it or both?”

We take pride as a nation in being conservative, despite the fact this conservativeness can be attributed to colonisation gone “right” more than it can be attributed to the preservation of our cultural identity and heritage. It is only in an attempt to justify oppression and exploitation that people pull out the “culture” card and champion and claim it as ours even though most of it really isn’t not to mention that most of us have turned our backs on our ancestors and their ways of knowing and doing and labelled them as evil and/or demonic. The result of this is an increasingly divided community with women being pitted against men and vice versa by false cultural ideals and ill informed western neo liberal (western feminism) ideals simply because as women we fight for our natural and authentic cultural rights to be respected, loved, seen as equals and to be safe in our homes and our communities. Not only will I continue to challenge this foolishness but mina ngizabe ngilokhu ngilahlumlenze wami ngoba thina njengabantu abamunyama, siphila ngengoma njalo ngiyaziqenya ngalokho (I shall continue to dance this way because as children of the soil we live by the drum and I pride myself in this). That is the way of my people.

 

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Confronting Cultural Imperialism in Human Rights Discourse

Written by Doreen Gaura for Africa on the Blog

Photograph taken by Beenish Ahmed for The Atlantic

Photograph taken by Beenish Ahmed for The Atlantic

A few days ago, a good friend of mine brought to my attention The Atlantic’s article Confronting a Sexual Rite of Passage in Malawi penned by Beenish Ahmed and the subsequent response to it by Kim Yi Dionne published on Africa is a Country and she asked for my thoughts; particularly with regards to Dionne’s response. In short, I am inclined to agree wholly with Dionne’s position but I’d like to take it further and extend this discussion to include the human rights sector and not just limit it to international media and it’s reporting on Afrika and the cultural practices therein.

I work in the human rights sector and actively work on children’s rights so it goes without saying that I appreciate what The Atlantic was attempting to achieve with this piece. Indeed, child protection is of paramount importance however, people must remember that children’s rights are an all encompassing issue and therefore must be approached with a holistic strategy and this is to say that in addition to ensuring their physical, psychological and emotional well being, we should also seek to ensure their social and spiritual/ cultural well being and that also means the right to have their cultures. This of course applies to all children but I particularly want to focus this discussion on the children of Afrika exclusively.

Often international reporters come to the continent and do more harm than the good they believe they are doing especially with such irresponsible reporting and activism. This is not the first time we have seen this. One side, often one that tends to paint whole communities with a very dark brush with very little to no attempt to fully understand the very cultures they are confronting, how they have evolved and to what extent that has been as a result of colonial influence, poverty, conflict, disease, migration, education, greater global politics, exposure (or lack thereof) and access is often the only one presented before the global audience which in turn results in reinforcing cultural imperialism directed towards Afrika as well as enabling the perpetuation and normalization of unchecked ignorant ideas around Afrika and her communities.

I have never been to Malawi and I confess that I know very little about the various cultural practices in the country. This little is mostly (and sadly) thanks to an extremely biased/one sided international media and international human rights organisation reports on human rights issues in the country but based on my experience on the never ending vilification of the Afrikan cultures I am more familiar with such as my own along with some of the responses from Malawians to this story, I know that initiation rites are not as entirely harmful as often portrayed by/ for the western observer neither is their portrayal very accurate.

Malawian on January 26, 2014 at 12:39 pm said:

Thanks so much, professor for your well-informed article. As a Malawian, I fumed as I read the original article due to its careless disregard to facts. A girl goes through initiation only after reaching puberty and has started menstruation, never before. 13-14 years or above is more like it. Therefore if a girl goes to initiation when she is ten or less, as claimed in the original article, she must have had very early menses indeed. Also the article makes it look like the Malawian’s life is all revolved around sex. During initiation people are taught more than sex, like how to behave in society, how to respect elders, general hygiene etc. In any case, sex education is important in life, and there is nothing wrong in learning about it from elders who have experienced it. It is certainly much better than learning it from porn, which is usually the case the so-called advanced societies, or fumbling around by trial and error, which can easily dent one’s self-esteem.

As highlighted above, most initiation rites are not as bad as they are often portrayed, at least not entirely. It is important to highlight that there are a lot of positive qualities in these rites of passage which we almost never hear about in international discussions around Afrikan cultural practices as well as that these rites are also sacred to those that practice them and that too should be respected even if it’s not understood.

It is disturbing to note that in various human rights spaces here in South Afrika where I am based for instance, there still exists a somewhat imperialistic vendetta against Afrikan cultures and this is often expressed through the ubiquitous phrase in these spaces “harmful cultural practices”. It is true that there are plenty of cultural practices on the continent that are harmful and should be abolished as a matter of urgency and others still that have either become irrelevant or redundant and should either evolve or face dissolution but there are plenty more that are not, in their truest form, harmful or polarised against the realisation of human rights for all but are instead being practiced harmfully or used as a weapon of oppression instead of the tool of building the community that it was always intended to do.

It goes without saying that practices like female genital mutilation, for instance, are in my opinion extremely harmful and serve no other purpose but to oppress whereas practices such as ukuthwala in their original form were never intended to oppress but, instead, to facilitate an honourable union between two young lovers who might have otherwise met with opposition, mostly from the girl’s family, to said union. Generally speaking, this practice is no longer relevant given the various pieces of legislation that exist in South Africa to protect children from forced marriage as well as those that enable adults to marry whom they wish but this of course does not take into account that to a lot of people community values and family honour are just as important to them as their individual rights are so such practices can be very relevant and very useful in aiding them to fully enjoy their rights without doing away with their cultural identity.

When one googles the definition of ukuthwala they will find a western/ modern definition and understanding of the practice and this is mainly; and rightly so; due to the abominable way in which it has been practiced in recent times, the result of which being activists calling for its abolition and culturists calling for its protection with no common ground and/or collaboration being reached by the opposing camps and ultimately little effectiveness of whatever protection initiatives are being conducted being realised. It should be noted that majority of the people who use ukutwala nowadays in the manner in which and the purposes of which they are using it are in fact in violation of their culture as it was intended and go against the fundamental values of their traditions which summarised boil down to the principle of ubuntu.

Much the same can be said of the also contentious issue in South Africa and Kenya which is traditional male circumcision of boys and young men that has resulted in the tragic deaths or grievous injuries of hundreds of boys and young men due to botched circumcisions. People in a lot of human rights spaces are baying for the elimination of this cultural practice without actually engaging with it – and most other cultures in fact – and working with those charged with protecting said cultures i.e. traditional leaders and communities to establish how best to protect the rights of people while at the same time preserving people’s cultures and their cultural identities.

The trouble is a lot of activists, and journalists alike do not realise that the cultural identity and autonomy thereof of the communities in which they work is very important in any real empowerment discourse therefore alienating and undermining cultures and traditional leaders does nothing to aid the fight for human rights. Such insensitive, ignorant and harmful reporting as seen in The Atlantic’s article and activism as seen in a lot of human rights spaces is in my opinion counter productive to the cause. Instead, it reinforces imperialist views that Afrikan cultures are inferior and barbaric as well as make community members more resistant to making the necessary amendments. As Afrikans, we have found over the last few centuries that our right to cultural identity is one we have fight for because in all honesty it is currently not truly a right but instead a privilege. A privilege that we do not have while others do.

My recommendation would be that we need to move away from alienating traditional leaders in our initiatives. We also need to stop being paternal in our engagements with them in our bid to eliminate the harmful and irrelevant aspects of cultural practices. We need to form equal partnerships therefore mutual respect for the other is paramount. Lastly, as Afrikans, we need to start telling our own stories and taking charge in the evolution of our cultures and be prepared to leave behind the things that go against the protection of our people and their human rights and the advancement of our communities in our bid to preserve our cultural identities. We need to uphold the fundamentals of our heritage which in these here parts in the South most part of Afrika we call ubuntu.

 

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Hair (Part 2)


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Lesley’s Commentary

I didn’t write the last post on my blog, although no one would question that it was mine based on the content.

My dear friend Doreen, an incredibly talented writer, gender activist and lovely person did. 

In addition to both being 28 year old females, Doreen and I have a lot in common in terms of interests, values and beliefs.

One thing that is different about us is that Doreen grew up in Zimbabwe in a ‘Black’ body and I in Canada in a ‘white’ one.

We decided to post our own personal experiences and struggles around hair on each other’s blogs, in each other’s names.

This idea came about during an impromptu dinner at Matipa’s house. Matipa and Doreen are best friends, work together and both hail from Zimbabwe. While eating Matipa’s beautifully prepared dinner, we (as usual) talked about all the off-limit topics: politics (the recent elections in Zim, the human trafficking bill that recently passed in South Africa) and ‘personal’ stuff/politics.

The ‘personal’ discussion focuses on hair.

We talked about the politics of ‘Black’ hair… how natural is oftentimes not considered as beautiful. How many women wear wigs and weaves, many which seemingly replicate ‘white’ hair (read long, straight, etc).

It is a complex, politically charged topic of which I know little about, save for what I’ve learnt watching Chris Rock’s ‘Good Hair’ documentary and conversations with friends.

They told me about a blog post The Hairy Nature of our Race Identity  that Doreen wrote on hair that caused a bit of controversy after Matipa tweeted it to a Zimbabwean hair blogger. One critique that Doreen received on her post was that she didn’t speak about ‘white’ hair.

They then turned to me and asked my mop-headed self about my hair experience. I told them this (https://colouredraysofgrey.wordpress.com/2013/11/13/hair-part-1/)

Tipa and Dor were surprised to hear the similarities that my experience had to theirs.

Despite having very different hair colours and textures, we realized we had something in common in that we have been conditioned into believing that our natural hair is somehow sub-par. We’ve all spent a lot of time and money trying to manipulate our hair to fit societally imposed ideals of beauty.

The intention of these posts is to point out the widespread societal constructions of what is beautiful with regards to hair (which is usually straight and long). The intention is not to undermine or delegitimize the experiences of ‘Black’ women with regards to hair. Indeed the racialization of hair is a complex and horrific phenomenon which I have not experienced living in the body of a ‘white’’-skinned middle class woman, with all the accompanying privileges.

While not intending to minimize or sideline focus from the political and social evils propagated against ‘Black’ hair (as they have been aptly highlighted by African American comedian and actor Chris Rock in his documentary Good Hair and Toyin Agbetu’s new documentary Beauty Is… and many others), we decided to post this as a general and united commentary of the painful and degrading politics of hair in which people around the world are taught that their hair isn’t beautiful if it doesn’t live up to a narrowly defined norm.

Doreen’s Commentary

As my dear friend Lesley has already highlighted above, the last post I put up on this blog was in fact written by her, a Canadian ‘white’ woman activist, scholar and writer/ blogger. We decided to do a blog swap after exchanging hair war stories and realizing that a lot of what each of us was saying could very well have come from any one of us as there were so many similarities in our stories regardless of our ethnic and racial differences. (see the post actually written by me here)

I particularly found it interesting because as a womanist/Afro-feminist I strongly believe in the recognition of intersectionality within any conversation regarding the empowerment of women. I also believe that it is important to acknowledge that the oppression of women is not all the same or always informed by the same politics or at the very least, in the same way, and that the different groups of women have different lived realities from that of what is the archetypal feminist i.e. the working class to middle class, heterosexual, able bodied, secular ‘white’ woman; however, during this conversation I was reminded that although our struggles can have their unique aspects, there are similar struggles that we fight as women, albeit informed and exacerbated by different politics, and that is the narrowly defined standards of beauty and acceptability even in these current times in which we live.

However, it is perhaps because we live in these times that the politics of hair have finally found a platform in public discourse where they can be picked apart and interrogated. In the last two decades or so we have seen people challenge the prescribed definitions of beauty with a particular focus being directed at body image and the fashion industry; more recently we saw the German plus size model, Mariesther Venegas  protest the Berlin fashion week’s continued marginalization of fuller figured women [models] by walking down the streets of Berlin naked for the Finally – Navabi campaign (which was strikingly similar to brown neo soul/ hip hop artist Erykah Badu’s personal protest against “group think” in the video to her song Window Seat where she also bared all). Also, in the recently concluded Paris fashion week, US designer Rick Owens [controversially] opted to model his creations using Afrikan American stomp dancers instead of the conventional leggy, uber skinny and mostly ‘white’ super models we are accustomed to.

Hair politics are not exclusive to female members of our society but also extend to the male members of our society where there too they have particular standards they have to subscribe to, especially ‘black’ men. A couple of years ago there was an uproar when Nivea produced an ad for their Look Like You Give a Damn campaign for their products for men that featured a ‘black’ male model holding the (decapitated) head of his former self, who’s sporting a beard, an afro, and a pissed-off expression and has the words “Re-civilize Yourself” scrawled across the image, with the smaller phrase “Look like you give a damn” on top, implying that Afrikan men, along with their hair, have to be packaged in a particular way in order to be considered to be civilized. The same expectation is extended to ‘black’ women as we are constantly discouraged from keeping our hair natural let alone finding empowerment and strength in it. However, as we have seen from this exercise between Lesley and myself, that this marginalization of the ‘other’ also extends to white women and perhaps men too, with a certain type of hair although comparatively, the degrees and negative impact of said marginalization differ from race to race, gender to gender and sex to sex etc.

Doing this exercise was not very easy. When Lesley and I set out to write our stories in our individual spaces before meeting up, exchanging them and posting, we realized that it was not going to be as easy as we thought it would be and questioned if it really was a good idea. Thing is, everything seems like a brilliant idea after a couple of glasses of wine and loads of rolling-on-the-floor laughter. We later confessed to each other when we finally got together again that we had both struggled with the initial pieces as we constantly battled to make the post as “racially aligned” as possible (i.e. convincing enough to readers that my piece was written by a ‘white’ woman and Lesley’s by a ‘black’ woman) in order to pull off the ruse. We were tempted to just forget about it, or at least I certainly was, until we realized that deliberately writing in such a way that alluded to a particular race was not only unnecessary but also contrary to the whole purpose of the exercise which was to find commonalities in the hair and identity politics of two women from different racial backgrounds despite perceived physical racial differences as well as informally investigate to what extent these commonalities, if at all, affect women of different races at an individual level.

The issue of hair (although it is a very personal thing) and how it positions an individual in the global economic, political and social hierarchical structure is proof that the personal is indeed political. People’s hair, although personal, is subject to the whims, attitudes and opinions of a society as a whole and not just the individual. It manifests itself as an identifier, a classifier and a political statement, whether we are conscious of it or not. Ultimately, whether we like it or not, our hair plays a huge role in deciding where society positions us politically, economically and socially.

*Note all racial references are put in quotations to denote that race is a social, rather than biological construct.

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2013 in Gender, Politics, Reflections

 

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Hair Part 1

Throughout my life I have spent a substantial amount of time and money on HAIR.

As a younger person, my focus was mostly on grooming it, removing it, colouring it, straightening it and otherwise manipulating it on a quest to ‘look nice’.

Although I do still spend time on hair today, my focus has shifted in that I spend a bit less time manipulating it and more time reflecting on its social and political implications.

All other forms of hair aside (that would require innumerable more posts!), the variety that grows from our scalps is what I’m focusing on here – an intensely personal as well as politicized subject.

This is a multi-part blog post. This first section aims to share some of my personal experiences with my hair. The next one is co-authored with a friend and will be posted later this week to consider some societal and political implications of hair.

***

When I was younger my hair was straighter that it is today. Along with puberty it became curlier and more difficult to manage. Growing up post-80s perm culture, most women wore their hair at least kind of straight or in a controlled curl.

As a teen I didn’t know how to wear my hair since it was different than that of my sister and Mom. I didn’t know how to deal with the tangled mop that I often encountered on top of my head.

I battled with blow dryers and straighteners and brushes and combs, all the while disliking it and thinking it looked haggard.

I recall coming back from swimming and spending hours trying to brush and comb it out and make it manageable.

Another thing that happened as I got older was that my hair darkened. Having lighter than normal hair had always been something that was commented on – something that made me feel special. Somehow, fairer seemed synonymous with attractiveness.  On top of trying to change the natural texture of my hair, I spent a lot of time and money changing the colour.

I recall dating someone in my late teens who told me that he thought my hair would be nice if I brushed it more. When I tried wearing it curly or letting it dry naturally, people called it ‘frizzy’ or messy.

The ‘natural’ stuff was clearly always sub-par, something to try to tame or change.  The time and money I put into my hair also seemed directly correlated to the positive attention I would get on it.

If only I could somehow ‘get it right’ or ‘tame it’ then I’d be a bit closer to being beautiful…

These days I don’t try as hard, although I do still try.

I will leave you with some things that I don’t usually say out loud:

  • Sometimes things get stuck in my hair. Days later I can find a bobby pin or some food up in there 😛
  • In my 28 years, I’m sure I’ve spent the equivalent of weeks if not months in front of the mirror, trying to coerce my hair into something different. My family and I have also spent a lot of money on it.
  • I’ve used countless chemical products, dyed, coerced, applied heat and coloured my hair. I’ve even burnt my forehead more than once on the quest for ‘better’ hair.

 

 
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Posted by on November 13, 2013 in Gender, Politics, Reflections

 

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The Problem With Respectability (Race) Politics

Written by Doreen Gaura for her column on iamtehn.com

About four years ago I made the life changing decision to go BACK to natural (no such thing as “going natural” in my opinion); about half a year later I was back on the job market after completing my internship at a renowned regional (SADC) gender organisation in Johannesburg. With a full head of uncombed, Afro textured hair, and at the risk of sounding as though I am tooting my own horn, I was totally rocking it, I sent out dozens of CVs and decided to volunteer at another NGO in a bid to keep my foot in the door.

Somewhere in the middle of my professional purgatory, some relos from back home visited with us and like any concerned Zimbabwean adult, they wanted to know what my plan for the future was i.e. was I actually actively looking for a job or was I sitting on my lazy, ruffian tattooed and pierced ass, just sponging off people as is the usual assumption made about people who look like me. I told them that I actually had an interview lined up for a managerial position with an organisation in Cape Town (the very same one I find myself currently employed at) to which they responded with a barely concealed sigh of relief that was quickly replaced with a look of what I can only imagine horror fornicating with disgust would look like were they flesh and blood; something freakishly ugly. “You are planning on doing something about your hair aren’t you? You can’t go for an interview looking like that!” the one relo exclaimed. To be fair, hers was constructive criticism because she didn’t just stop at the criticism but went as far as to offer up a range of “solutions” to my perceived dilemma which ranged from me getting a weave to me relaxing my hair, however, not one “solution” involved me keeping my hair natural. Apparently that isn’t an option on the road toward “respectability”. Who knew?

This actually isn’t an isolated incident but is in fact the story of my adult life in my Zimbabwesphere as it is the story of many-a-person of colour around the world since time immemorial and as Jay Smooth articulately pointed out, the story of the very many Treyvon Martins’ and the abuse they have suffered and/or their subsequent deaths. In spite of the political and the perceived socio economic emancipation of the brown (black) person, the quest to “deniggerfy”/ “dekaffirise” the Afrikan seems to be very much alive and kicking and it appears that it is the very same brown person who claims to be emancipated that is leading the battalion into war against the “unrespectable black”, be they sitting at a CNN news desk in the U.S. or in an office at Karigamombe Centre, Harare.

I have found that we are the biggest critics of “blackness” and are quite content with being dictated to by others what determines our right to respect. “You have tattoos? Well then, you deserve to be discriminated against and be passed over for that job you applied for that you were the most qualified for out of all the other candidates who applied isn’t it?” “You have dreadlocks? Well then, it makes total sense that you were profiled at Maputo International airport and suspected of drug trafficking because in all fairness, you do look like a thug.”

This is not just the plight of the average Shupi/Jane or Joe/ Kwame on the streets of Harare or Joburg or Accra or Miami or Kent but it also goes to the highest office of the land in a lot of places, especially Southern Afrika. I have heard South Africans express their dismay at how Msholozi a.k.a. Jacob Zuma sometimes likes to tog the traditional Zulu attire, ibhetshu, because they think it’s embarrassing or unprofessional but the very same people are totally OK with the leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, traipsing across the globe being profound and enlightened and shit, all the while donning an orange curtain like thingy and I must admit, some very groovey beads.

People say presentation is everything and in a lot of ways they are right but they negate the fact that presentation cannot be viewed in an overly simplified and singular manner. A good presentation is not necessarily reliant on what you are wearing or what your hair looks like but on how you carry that look that serves to express a part of your personal identity. I have eight tattoos, a nose ring, finger combed “nappy” hair, I do not own a suit (I hate them; they’re stuffy) and my idea of dressing formal is donning one of my many kente, capulana or chitenge print outfits and believe me when I tell you that none of these aspects of my “presentation” prevent me from writing articles and papers that have been published around the world, or from addressing parliamentarians and politicians in South Africa and Italy on children’s rights,or from drafting national guidelines on combating child exploitation with SA government and ILO (Internationl Labour Organisation) officials, or being invited, on two occasions, by the Department of Labour to be the keynote speaker at their national events on the National Day Against Child Labour. Not only do I do these things which are part of my job in spite of my allegedly unrespectable look but I do them well.

When Don Lemon of CNN suggested that if brown people presented themselves more respectably by, say, young brown men pulling up their pants, tragedies like that of Treyvon Martin would be easily avoided I saw red. Now don’t get me wrong, I personally detest the whole sagging jeans thing, but I would never discriminate against someone or justify an injustice committed against someone because they had their trousers hanging halfway down to their ankles. To me it’s no different from the “she deserved to get raped because she was wearing a mini skirt” codswallop that misogynists often spew. This line of thinking only serves to justify systemic racism and the continued oppression of brown people and blames the victim instead of the perpetrator.

And it doesn’t end at appearance mind you, but it even goes as far as accents and our command of the English language or the professions we choose. Venturing into the arts is still not considered a respectable career choice in a lot of places, especially Zimbabwe where artists not only struggle to eke out a living through their art but also to gain respect from society for their chosen profession. The same goes for the way we speak. People are more ready to accept and respect someone who speaks private school English than someone who speaks English with a heavy Shona or Ndebele accent. We use one’s fluency in the English language as a bench mark for their intelligence regardless of the fact that the former does not necessarily guarantee the latter. Trust me, I have met some fluent English speakers in my time who are as thick as door nails and not quite as useful. If anything, this bar that has been set as a result of colonialism only serves to discredit people’s opinions and positions and render them inadmissible or void and this is mainly because a lot of Afrikan peoples who are otherwise well informed on a particular subject find it difficult to articulate themselves effectively or coherently in the English language.

The idea that brown (black) people need to look or act a certain way to deserve respect or be safe from racism or discrimination is ludicrous and reinforces the colonial belief that Afrikans are primitive or subhuman. It serves to justify the historical (and in a lot of ways still existent)oppression of the brown person. The real tragedy is that this system and the issue of respectability (race) politics are so entrenched in our societies that we as brown people have internalised them and are now their propagators and are zealously feeding into it (racism)ourselves. What we do not realise is that this detracts from the real issues and prevents us from reclaiming our common identity, redefining it on our own terms(whatever the result maybe: sagging jeans and dreadlocks or not) and subsequently demanding its (said identity) global recognition as equally respectable and demanding an end to the vindication of racially charged discrimination and violation.

 

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