"Because of writers like Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye … I realized that people like me, girls with skin the color of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature"
I started this blog, in many ways, because I wanted and needed to stay alive.
When I moved to America for University, I was vibrant and abloom but just a couple of months in, I was breathless, anxious and longing to leave. I was tired of studying 7 days/week. I was tired of living in the "factory line" of education. The sole purpose of my existence was to study. My food was cooked for me, house cleaned, lawn mowed. I was part of a system that from the outside looked elitist, but as an insider, I can assure you that it slowly deadened me. Rather than elevate me, I found that my life in the US reduced me to a single identity - a student. There was no room here for me to be a church member, a sister, a daughter or a community-volunteer. Life here was neither structured nor designed to be holistic.
It's been a long time coming but I've come to learn that to live a holistic life, is to live a balanced life.
To be fully human is to not only have a multiplicity of identities - to be lover, friend, sister, daughter, neighbor - but more importantly to have the liberty to move between all your identities as life allows you to. We start to be truly alive when we can be more than a single story, a single identity.
That's what Americanah gave me. It gave me Ifemelu - an all rounded character - whose life, in many ways, reflected, validated and accounted for my own.
These are a few life lessons I picked up from Americanah:
1. Creativity and self-presentation
What tools do young black educated African women have to tell their own story? I'm truly impressed by the sheer number of fashion/photography/sports/farming/culinary/make-up blogs that I have come across in the past few years that are run by African women. Blogging is becoming a powerful way with which to portray an emerging "African womanhood". The very fact that women are presenting themselves as concerned about their nail polish or as "needing this outfit" is a monumental shift away from ideas of African women as carrying firewood and fetching water. This is not to say that one image is better than the other, but rather that there is a multiplicity of "African women".
"The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. "
2. Coming into womanhood
My oh my! I can write a book about this one! I was having a conversation with my friend Doris (my esteemed friend, Kenyan homegirl turned photographer), about the numerous ways in which we have come into being as young women! Let's just say, tumetoka mbali (we have come from very far)! Life abroad has changed me in many ways. Academically, I have been enriched by all the intellectual encounters I have had with my professors and fellow students. But more than that, this experience has forced me to look inward. Who am I? What do I like most about myself? What are my strengths? What do I want to accomplish with my life? How do I engage with Africa, having been away for some time and gained new perspectives?
The most resounding question has been - what does it mean to be a young, educated, African woman? How do I engage with the world? How does the world perceive me? How should I present myself to the world? These are still questions that I am musing over.
"We teach girls shame. Close your legs, cover yourself. We make them feel as though by being born female they're already guilty of something. And so girls grow up to be women who cannot see they have desire. They grow up to be women who silence themselves."
3. Loving all of my (physical) self: dark skin, thick lips, boisterous hips, kinky locs!
The journey of growing into oneself is one that lasts a lifetime, I believe. We are always morphing, always changing, always adapting. There are many versions of ourselves. I can assure you, Tabitha in Standard 2 was a bully, diva and tomboy all wrapped into one! I used to be the one playing football with the guys at break time and then exchanging bandanas and girlie hair accessories with my friend Grace on the bus ride home! Lol.
In many ways, I'm still learning to love all of myself. Trust me, there's lots of days when I wish my legs were a little more toned or days when I get jealous that such-and-such has such beautiful skin. But just like Ifemelu, I'm on a journey of self-love. In many ways this has been embodied by my natural hair journey. Natural hair, has been a way for me to learn how to take care of and love my body. It has also been an internal journey of self-acceptance, as many of you have shared in your reposts for the AJANI Handmade Giveaway I'm hosting this week. (PS - what's not to love about AJANI Handmade? They are "a social enterprise aimed at empowering African women through care & acceptance of their natural beauty." BOOM!)
"Relaxing your hair is like being in prison. You're caged in. Your hair rules you. You didn't go running with Curt today because you don't want to sweat out this straightness. You're always battling to make your hair do what it wasn't meant to do."
This is a reminder to myself. To close my eyes and take a deep breath. Inhale. Exhale. Enjoy the little things. Embrace all of life. All of oneself. Go ahead, shine, sparkle and illuminate. It's perfectly alright to be you.