It is Wednesday evening, at around 6:30 pm, and I am sitting on a small mat, my legs crossed into a tight knot. The large doors, the high ceiling and the artwork on the walls evoke a sacred, reverent feeling in me. I am caressing a set of beads between my fingers as I chant and sing just low enough not to disturb the woman seated next to me. She is also singing.
My story today begins where it will end: Inside the Hare Krishna Temple at Ngara, Nairobi.
My name is Jayne Adhiambo Opondo. I am 22, and I am a follower of Krishna. I know “Opondo” and “Krishna” in the same sentence sounds strange, because there is this strong stereotype that some religions belong to certain people.
In the same way people assume every Arab or Somali is a Muslim, the name Adhiambo Opondo is likely to have Christian, rather than Krishna, associations. So how did I end up here? Perhaps the best picture to illustrate the beginning of my journey is that of a box.
“Don’t leave me! I’m begging you, please don’t leave!” The young woman screamed amidst gasps for air as the waves of pain around her womb grew worse and drifted closer to one another.
Florence Sinet, 24, had gone into labour a few hours earlier while at her house in Loodokilani, Kajiado. When her waters broke, she asked her husband to take her to hospital, but her husband, in his late 50s, insisted that she deliver the child at home, the traditional way.
He called the local traditional midwife who arrived within minutes and started attending to Sinet. The midwife examined the labouring woman and immediately realised that this was going to be a difficult birth. The baby had not descended properly and needed to be turned before it could be delivered.
Good thing that the sexagenarian already had dozens of home births under her belt, a good number of which had similar, if not worse, complications. She had only lost a few babies and even fewer mothers. However, when she examined Sinet, she suddenly rose to her feet and stumbled backwards, a horrified look on her face. She then turned and ran out of the room.
While attending an event recognizing persons living with disability in his constituency, Kibra Member of Parliament Ken Okoth recently tweeted:
“Celebrating the International Day of Persons Living with Disability. Inability is not Disability (sic).”
This example illustrates an important point about many of our attempts to “normalize” what the prevailing culture otherwise finds abnormal.
Chances are you have heard the popular phrase “black is beautiful” used in a conversation or you read it in a piece of writing. The context is usually in the attempt to fight against the popular (false) assumption that light skinned people are more beautiful simply because their skin is lighter.
However, many who respond with “black is beautiful” seldom take the time to think through the implications of their well meaning response.
If I am not mistaken, I assume that what they intend to communicate is that beauty is not skin deep and what ultimately distinguishes beautiful from ugly is not the color of one’s skin but something else along the lines of what Dr Martin Luther King, Jr called “the content of their character”.
But how does simply stating “black is beautiful” (often as a caption to a picture of a black woman) communicate this message? It sounds more like a desperate attempt to force a “truth” that the audience simply doesn’t find convincing.
It is almost like walking into a jewelry shop and shouting “iron is precious too!” It is very close to what we are often doing (albeit unconsciously) when we insist “black is beautiful” in an atmosphere that seems to elevate lightness of skin as a measure of beauty.
To stretch the analogy further, if someone was to approach the shouting person in the jewelry shop and asked them “why do you say iron is precious?” the person will most likely start listing all the major feats that iron helped human beings accomplish in history.
However, in doing so, the conversation will no longer be about the chemical composition of iron but about something entirely different. You see, if the preciousness of iron is determined by its ability to serve as a tool, then diamonds should be at the top of the list and gold at the bottom. Clearly, the parameters for determining the preciousness of metal were never located in the hardness of metal.
In the same way, the cultural standards of beauty are not in the color of one’s skin but in a combination of factors that can never be simply reduced to skin color.
Black isn’t beautiful, and neither is whiteness or lightness.
But the sad reality is that if you grew up associating whiteness with wealth, privilege and beauty; then you will always struggle to disentangle blackness from poverty, disadvantage and ugliness. White is civilized, black is not.
Instead of maintaining “black is beautiful” or “black is beautiful too”, perhaps we should spend more time investigating how come white is beautiful in the first place, and why that seems to be a given. By pursuing this line of inquiry, we may just realize that what is needed to see black as beautiful is not to give black the things that white has (clearly, that isn’t working), but to take apart our entire value system and anchor it on something less superficial than health, wealth and the pursuit of privilege.
This won’t be easy. It will mean questioning almost everything we have always believed about how the world works. It is going to be a messy process. Many of these cultural biases are so ingrained that we act on them mindlessly. Even more troubling is that even when we attempt to fight against these biases, we still do it along contours defined by a worldview that privileges white over black.
This is what I mean; we have dark skinned models who are skinny and wearing make-up and strutting on stages in exactly the same way that white models used to do in the time when all models were white. The only thing that has changed is that we now have black models on events that previously only had white models. This is not progress.
As long as we fail to see that the system that came up with beauty pageants and skinniness and make-up and stage-strutting is the same system that made white beautiful, we have not accomplished anything, not even if all the models became black.
A culture is deeper than its symbols. A culture is also about values, and it is ultimately about worldviews — the lens through which we view and interpret all of life. This is why I don’t believe the way to change a culture is to chip away at each symbol, one symbol at a time until we finally change the underlying worldview.
The only thing this will achieve is a regressive series of “campaigns” that never seem to address the heart of the matter; one day “black is beautiful”, the next day “plump is beautiful”, the following day “burkas are beautiful” and after that “kinky hair is beautiful”… and so on. While such campaigns give us a sense of motion, they are not marks of any meaningful progress, they will never get us to the change we desire.
The change we desire and instinctively crave for when we shout “black is beautiful” is a more radical (radical as in root) change. It is not a change that is color-blind, but a change that sees color through the right lenses and appreciates the diversity of the world without needing to flatten it in order to please or accommodate everyone.
Do you have some ideas on where we can begin in our quest for this kind of cultural change? Or is it a lost cause? Are we just re-arranging furniture on the Titanic? And is there even a point trying to work towards such a cultural reformation?
An old story is told about a big ship whose engine had failed. The ship’s owners called in one expert after another, but none of them knew how to fix the engine.
Then they brought in an old man who had been fixing ships since he was a teenager. The old man lugged a large and worn leather bag of tools with him. He arrived and immediately went to work. He inspected the engine very carefully, top to bottom.
The ship’s owners stood there, tracking the old man’s movements, doubting he knew what he was doing. After looking things over, the old man reached into his bag and pulled out a small hammer. He gently tapped something in the engine.
Instantly, the engine lurched to life. He carefully put his hammer away, tipped his hat at the ship owners and walked away. A week later, the ship owners received a bill from the old man for one million shillings.
“What?!” the owners exclaimed. “It’s ridiculous! He hardly did anything!” So they wrote the old man a note saying, “Please send us an itemised bill.”