Ignorance is bliss, but someone has to do the dirty work. I am happy that we are in a space where we can discuss, explore, scrutinize. To reframe the narratives of Africa.
When I was seven years old, I found myself sharing a classroom with black and brown girls. The terrifying part, which translated to a consistent cold sweat, was the math lesson being conducted.
Understand me keenly: Girls love math, girls enjoy learning science, girls comprehend logic. However, I abhor math, I am reluctant to studying sciences and I have an aversion to logic. They are too stiff, rigid and inflexible.
On that fateful day, my seven-year old self made a vow that would influence the succeeding 17 years of my life. I vowed to tell true stories about black and brown girls. Stories that are tolerant, relatable and malleable to the socio-politico context my sisters and I coexist in.
Fast forward, I begin building my library purposely. Storytellers must read. Influenced by an architectural artist for a father and an oral storyteller for a mother, I doubled in pencil sketching and daily journaling.
Beside every book that I read, I have always strived to sketch my ideas into the plot. However, I noticed a recurring motif in the books I consumed; I was not acquainted to the visual and literary storytelling. The picket-fenced suburbs, the getting away with petty crimes, unleashing unsolicited kisses. These for the most part was a white woman reality.
For decades, the protagonist in mainstream publishing portrays a snowy, dainty-bodied protagonist. When I was younger, I thought to myself that this unfamiliar character is just a troublemaker.
In her paper “Should Children’s Literature serve a Political Function”, Andrea Adomako shares how the depictions of black characters in the late 19th and early 20th century tended to promote negative stereotypes. Childhood favorites such as Tarzan, produced in 1912, and The Little Elephant, produced in 1931, are some of the many transparently propagandistic portrayals of Western and White superiority over Africans.
Self-hate is learned
Back to the library-in-progress, many of my books came with adhesive inserts of white women. To coexists in spaces, I maximized my personality on room decor. Sticker on the walls of my bedroom, in my classroom desk, school locker, sketch pads, Nokia 3310 and even daily diary. I would awake and sleep to this images of Cinderella, Belle and Snow White.
The mental and conscious disconnect transformed to unrealistic, unhealthy physical routines. I would apply oils with skin lighteners, which are to this day consistently advertised in media. I also burnt my follicles off with hair relaxing chemicals, scolding hot combs and straightened my hair thin with heat.
This, I learnt, is not a singular story. Eurocentric beauty standards are firmly ingrained in our cosmetic culture. Those who beautified me committed to these practices. This self-deprecating beauty processes eventually affected my mental health. We are exposed to the same self-hate inducing media messages through undeserved advertising, literature and visual art.
Normalizing Melanated Skin
In the early 20th Century, a more positive and inclusive strand of children’s literature developed. W.E.B Du Bois produced The Brownies’ Book - the first black children’s magazine - in 1920. His goal was to have black children recognize that they are normal, to learn about their history, and to recognize their potential.
Self-hate does not exist in a vacuum. It is learned, fed and preserved by a deliberate producer. Admonishing and chastising this antagonist is not my work’s intention. No. My work is to explore solutions that are practical, inheritable and dignified.
Progressively, I latch on my vow with the admirable goals of Du Bois in mind. I enrolled in Journalism school. Immediately, I start working on my dissertation, purposely. In my freshman year, I exhibited my artwork at my first group exhibition. While making my work, I learnt about the history of illustration and digital art.
Mammy Saved Lives
Soon, I learn about the Mammy archetype. Let me tell you about Mammy. Her name embodies her roles. Aunt Jemima is one of the earliest fictionalized illustration depicting black women. An illustration of white supremacy enforcing the powerlessness of black and brown slave girls as soothing, consenting and agreeable work mules in perpetuity.
Having chosen conceptual digital art as my medium of choice, I set my artist self apart to produce imagery that upholds black and brown girls and women as the dignified, respectable protagonists they are. With Mammy’s encouragement, I sought to consistently feed the art space with this content.
Conversation in Confidence
Now that I had identified my medium and character, I had to choose a concept. Having in mind my goal about who I am making art for, I identified my sample size. 70 girls from a private school in Nairobi county and 70 girls from a community center in Kirinyaga Central county. Aged between 8-13 years, they shared a topic which they do not understand. They had heard about periods, but did not know how they work. In my survey, 65% of girls have been introduced to periods by advertisers.
As we had succeeding sessions, the young babes confided in me. They told me many bizarre warnings that their mothers, sisters, cousins and friends shared with them about periods. “Don’t tell boys about your health!”, “Don’t sit next to your father when on your periods!”, “Don’t trust men or you will have a baby!”. Wait! What is going on! Why are periods all about men? “If I shouldn’t do these things, what should I do?”
The conversations we have with our daughters and sisters are alarmist monologues. Bias-influenced, they are tyrannical lectures that bind misconceptions on healthy body processes, such as menstruation. The fact that at the end of these hostile monologues the girls did not learn about the physiological cycle of menstruation is undignifying. The pre-teens know that all of a sudden things will change. They are going to become women. And, because they are women, they will adjust.
Ignorance is bliss, and I need to do the dirty work. I finally found the concept to my story, taking charge of the African Menstrual Health Management narrative. Together with my girls, we produced Tunu’s Gift. A period book for African girls.
We pretested each panel. Brutally, my girls tore my work apart! Discussing, exploring, scrutinizing. Reframing this our African menstruation narrative.
It was impressive how they authored this comic diligently. The main character of the comic, her name is Tunu, was not just going to get her period out of the blue! The girls appointed her as the class president! They gave Tunu a definite leadership role! Just like the ones they hold at school, in social gatherings and even at home.
Giving Tunu a storyline that identifies her as an African woman leader is proof that 8-12 year old black and brown Kenyan girls want to own their narrative. Back to the drawing board I went. Second pretest, and I awaited their reactions and critique with bated breath. They loved the sketches!
My girls are the sweet dreams of any artist! The perfect client we all deserve.They granted me the permission to ink and color the comic. Breathing life into this artistic project, my girls made a baby that that their elders are proud of.
Deep Roots of Diversity
Art is personal. It is deeply rooted in childhood exploits, media messages and past experiences. Social art, however, is communal. It is deeply rooted in diversity, keen listening and honest input. Tunu’s Gift is a period comic made by, for and about black and brown African pre-teen girls. The comic’s inserts will be of a black and a brown African woman leader - ready to inhabit bedroom walls, classroom desks and daily diaries.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is the right time to own and narrate our stories. It is time to own our stories.
Summing up the learning of my research, remember these three characteristics of the African story:
- The African story is emotive. You cannot escape your feelings. It is a rich story with sadness, excitement, surprises and more. As researchers and storytellers,it is our duty to tell our story truthfully and with heart. Caveat, there is a thin line between a true story and pity porn.
- The African story is contextual. It is based on real time experiences. This is why researchers are sexy. We collect and analyze data in its context. Caveat, Africans are not research subjects. They are real respondent with real stories. Treat us with dignity. Otherwise, we are recycling colonial maltreatment.
- The African story is sustainable. Africa is the source. Full stop. Africa is mama. A mother works to nourish her progeny. We, as African storytellers, have a cup that will ever be running over. Let’s act like it!