Saturday, April 28, 2012

Welcome- Please, leave your shoes at the door.

Hallo. How are you? I am well if you are well too. You are welcome to my home. Please do come in. Eh, but please leave your shoes at the door. Yes like that. Thank you. And while you are at it please leave your hat of  pity, your coat of condescension, your walking stick of superiority as well as your purse right there on that bench outside. Don’t worry, they will be safe. No one will steal them. The youth around here have no use for that purse if they must take the hat, coat and stick. Too burdensome they say. You can pick them up on your way out. That is if you still need them. I just need to you come inside as you are so that we can talk a little. Thank you.

No, no, please. Come and sit next to me on my mat. I know that last time I gave you that chair, but just for today, I want us to sit together on my mat. Thank you. I know you will understand. You see I would offer you that seat, the only seat in the house as my guest. That is our custom. The guest must be more comfortable than the host. But you see, doing that has made some people feel like they are better than the host. Some even walk away believing that the host himself thinks that he is inferior to his guest. But this is not so. That is a big misunderstanding. And it is our fault really. We should have explained better the real meaning of this custom of hospitality, which many of your people mistake for stupidity. Today we will sit down on my mat together, so that I am not looking up at you from my mat, and you are not looking down at me from the seat. That is the best way to talk to one another. When you go back you can explain to them.

Now we are seated, I greet you formally and welcome you once again. I am glad you have come to see me bearing gifts. But before we do anything else, allow me to speak to you today. Yes, I know you think that you know all you need to know about me, and I also understand that you think you know how best you can help me. But today I just want you to listen only. Don’t interrupt me. In fact, in here you have no mouth, but you have two wide open ears leading to an even more open heart. I am glad there are no men here today, because I want to talk to you as my fellow woman. I know our educated people call you many things, over there; neo liberal, liberal with a white- savior- complex. I will not call you any such names because in this land, names are potent and I do not want to invoke the things that those names describe.

Our people say that tears are best dried with one’s own hand. Please allow me to dry my own tears because I know whence they come. Hand me a cloth to do it, Put an arm over my shoulder to comfort me, but let me do it myself, so that I may not be ashamed and humiliated in front of the children, that a grown woman like me needed a hand to wipe her tears.

There is something you do not know about me. I think a lot, about many different things. Our women here have been thinking and thinking for centuries before your people came here with the Bible and guns. Perhaps you do not know this because your elders did not teach you, but before your people even existed, our people were there. Many of the things you claim as your inventions and enjoy over there on your side of the world, have their roots right here in this land. So when you look at me in this condition, do not be fooled by what you think you see.

That I am poor, does not mean my mind and spirit are impoverished. That I am feeble from hunger does not mean that I am weak of will. That my children are naked does not mean they are not clothed in pride and dignity. That I am uneducated by your standards and using your books does not mean I am lacking in wisdom.  That I carry many burdens whose source you know nothing about does not mean I am powerless.

Do you know that every time you come here and bring me your help, I am left feeling diminished? I am left with the kind of feeling I imagine I would have if I bared my nakedness in the market square. You look confused. Let me explain. It is not the help that is the problem, but it is the manner in which you help me. You assume that you know better than me what I need. In fact, you never ask me what I want, or how I feel about the help you bring. Then you leave, sometimes without saying goodbye, or waiting to see if I am doing any better after the help.

Sometimes I am relieved when you leave because then I can use my mind again to get on with my life. How is it that help can feel like a burden? It should bring relief, no? Yet I sometimes feel as though this help comes at such a heavy price, a price I would sooner not pay. I have lived in this land all my life, as have my great grandmothers and my mothers and millions of women before them. All of us have lived, raised children and laughed, loved, cried, worked, sang, danced and died in this land long before your people came. We understand this land, its hardships and challenges better than you or anyone from outside can. It is tough here, and as a woman most of the burden of life falls on you.

Did you know that, from the time I was aware that I was a female, I knew what that meant for me? I knew that I would have to fight intelligently, wisely, cunningly with a barely perceptible razor sharp tenacity for the things I wanted. I also knew from an early age that there would be times when I would have to bow, so as not to be broken, and there would be times when I would have to stand firm and shout, so as not to die. I learnt how to decipher the changing winds, the changing seasons so that I knew when to push and when to pull, when to be still and when to move, when to talk and when to be silent. That is how I wielded my power, by discerning which battles were worth fighting. The women in my family are very strong and I learned to empower myself through them. I learnt to be like the wind: we don’t see it and we cannot touch it, but we see its effects, trees swaying and ripples on river. We see its power in sturdy baobab trees uprooted and sent flying across fields like twigs in the breeze and waves that heave and vomit over entire cities, grinding everything into fine sand.

I don’t mean to sound rude but that is why your empowerment talk is senseless to me. How do you empower an empowered woman? Just because you do not understand my empowerment does not mean it does not exist. It is the same ridiculous way your people have spoken about this land, as though it came into existence the minute they set eyes on it, or the way they would say there were no people, only savage natives. Do you see the problem? You have inherited the belief that we here in this land are savages who need to be civilized so that we become more like you. Is that not so? Yet you are the same ones who have proved that all human beings originated in this land. You have proved it with your science, but you do not believe it in your hearts. If you believed it, then you would not see me as a lesser being than you. You would appreciate that my different color, approach, culture and language, songs and stories were as important to me as yours are to you, and you would respect that. You would let me tell my stories and sing my songs as you do your own. However you continue to see me as lesser, as needy so that you can bring your help and you walk away feeling very good. You walk away feeling as though you have accomplished something to go back to your land and report to your bosses that you helped the African woman. You take pictures of me, horrible pictures when I am at my worst. How many times have you ever said: go and change, rub some oil on your body and smile. You don’t even ask me where I want my picture taken. Instead you want it taken at the water pump or with me nursing a sick baby or with my lips cracked and parched from hunger. Then you parade these pictures in your land telling them to donate money to this poor African woman so she can feed her children. You do not even know my name; you call me Lilian because you fear you will swallow your tongue if you try to say the name my parents gave me. You don’t even try. You give me a name that makes you feel comfortable just like the help you give; to you ease your mind so you can sleep better at night.

Tell me, has this ever been about me? Be honest with yourself because the answer to that question has deeper consequences for you than for me. I am familiar with the ways of your ancestors, and I know what they did. Everyone here knows this, and while we do not dwell on it every day, these ancient trees, rivers, mountains and caves bore witness and tell the story day after day, year after year. The issue is: do you know the true story or the one you listened to at your mother’s breast? It is that story you need to probe, to dissect and to turn inside out, in order to answer the question I asked you. You have to do this if you really want to be of help, but you also have to accept that you need to be helped. This new world requires us to help each other, and that can only happen when you come to the realization that your knowledge about me is deficient, and your ideas about me are flawed at best and false at worst. You need to accept that the narrative you have been fed over and over again about me is told from the perspective of your people, in whose best interests it was to tell it that way. They had to justify their treatment of my ancestors by telling those back home that we were inept and unable to function save as servants to them and they in turn would administer our lands and all the wealth they discovered in the ground. They had to justify mass killings and forced removal of my people to your lands where they were slaves on plantations, if they made it across the temperamental sea. Seriously, look at me: Am I as helpless as you think? Ask yourself how I survive in your absence, or even before you came here.

You look worn out. I think that is enough for today. Just remember that the world is ever changing and to question all you read about me, even that which is written by my own people because some of our own have motives that are less than honorable. That is the way it is. You never know, we are the same age, you and I, and maybe our great grandchildren will run into each other. Think about what their interaction will be, if we do not rewrite the narrative. Think of how our meeting may be an opportunity for cultural exchanges that will be the yarn we use to weave a different story which we will tell our grandchildren. What that history will be is in our hands, but first you have to listen and hear me when I speak and allow me to see, not pity, but the power that is mine reflected in your eyes.

You have done well by stopping by. Excuse my manners, I did not even offer you water to drink. But I think today, what happened here was more important than following custom.  Yes, you are right; sometimes we make progress by breaking with tradition. Travel well and see you when you come back. By the way, if you still have a hard time calling me by my name, then just call me Mama Afrika.


  1. Wow! This powerful and deeply profound. Insightful, incisive and life affirming - you reclaim with such literary force the dignity of a long distorted portrayal of Africa, its daughters and the women who call it home.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. And as our people would say - a tiny little flame can become the conflagration that burns down forest logs in times ahead. In this article you have lit a spark, and from it may flames of a revisionist narrative emerge - to revise, revisit, reclaim and rewrite - the story of African women as they have lived and experienced it.

    We can wipe our own tears because we know best why we have shed them.

    Well said Barbs, you're truly inspirational!

  2. wow!! I love this. Wow!!! "Did you know that, from the time I was aware that I was a female, I knew what that meant for me? I knew that I would have to fight intelligently, wisely, cunningly with a barely perceptible razor sharp tenacity for the things I wanted. I also knew from an early age that there would be times when I would have to bow, so as not to be broken, and there would be times when I would have to stand firm and shout, so as not to die. I learnt how to decipher the changing winds, the changing seasons so that I knew when to push and when to pull, when to be still and when to move, when to talk and when to be silent. That is how I wielded my power, by discerning which battles were worth fighting.". So true!

  3. Fantastic piece, Barbara. I think everyone should read this. I love it.

  4. I think this should be published more widely... like how Binyavanga Wainaina's piece about 'How to write about Africa' is everywhere on the Internet and in books and journals. You HIT HIT HIT the nail on the head and opened up space for so many discussions... what is empowerment? whose understanding of it matters? how should Africa be depicted and who should do that? does Afro-feminism have a place in mainstream discourse? whose agenda is fulfilled by elevating Africa's women?

    My brain is ticking!

  5. Thank you Barbs, you write beautifully!

  6. I have read this post-colonial discourse for a while and I am afraid that as much as it tries to show the condescending attitude of the West towards Africa it is also condescending towards the West. We do not reclaim our identity by being haughty, we reclaim our identity by acknowledging that we are all one race, the human race. Thats my two cents.