Illustration by Shenuka Corea

Finding Beauty in No Man’s Land

I once asked my uncle what made a girl beautiful and he pointed to a light-skinned girl and said, “‘See? That is beautiful’.”

Oct 1, 2016

Everything changed when I crossed the border. Shuttling between my Kenyan and Tanzanian homes was always an adventure. Handing over my passport at the immigration counter seemed like a grown up thing — from the moment I walked up to the counter when the officer yelled, Next! to the moments of silence as I fidgeted and clutched my yellow fever certificate just in case the officer asked for it. The whole affair made me feel like I was in charge of myself. Whenever we passed through the border, my mother always pointed out the triangular cordoned-off land that she called no man’s land.
“If you shoot someone in there, no one arrests you. It’s not Kenya or Tanzania,” she would say, pointing at the gates that bounded it. I would stare at it wondering what mischief I could possibly get away with in the five minutes that my mother’s back was turned as she presented her passport.
The idea of a no man’s land was fascinating to me. The idea that countries in this conquer-all-you-can age could look at a piece of land and both agree not to claim it for their own. That piece of land represented more than a fascinating landmark to me. It often described how I felt whenever I left my mother’s hometown. The ideals of beauty situated within her upbringing compared to the confines of my own childhood often left me perplexed, drowning in a sea of what-ifs and trying to make sense of my blackness. Sure, I grew up with the knowledge that the brown girl — as the lighter skinned people are referred to in Kenya — would get the upper hand on the social scene. She could smile her way into beauty, into popularity and into the tenets of my self-worth. I never admitted it — that I wanted to be lighter. That I wanted my tint to loosen up a bit, join the leagues of those who were brown and beautiful.
I often found it strange when I came to NYUAD and people referred to me as simply black. It was not that I thought it strange to be black, it was just that back home it was always light-skin, brown or dark that people used to refer to complexion. In fact, the only time I remember hearing someone described as black, it was an insult thrown at someone with a darker complexion than that of the accuser.
Whenever I went to my mother’s hometown in Tanzania, I felt black. I was amidst the Fair and Lovely tubes on my aunts’ dressers, the stacks of powder and the reiterations of my uncles about the pretty girls with lighter skin complexion that they had seen. Back home in Kenya, I had been aware of the separation of genders, the continued assertion that my father and brother were different from what they would call us — us girls. I was aware that we looked at life differently and that we would go through life with different kinds of expectations thrust upon us. This realization hung over everything, lest we forget. Because of this, whenever I visited my Tanzanian relatives I tried to wiggle as far as I could from the label of us girls. If my grandfather went off to town, I went along. If my uncle was off to a roadshow concert, I didn’t give it a second thought. This boy’s world was full of spontaneity, of adventure and, most importantly, it wasn’t coloured by complexion. At least not for me.
That all changed when I asked my uncle what made a girl beautiful and he pointed to a light-skinned girl and said, “See? That is beautiful.” He said it firmly and nodded his head as if to approve of what he had just said.
“Does that mean I am not beautiful?” I responded.
He looked down at me blankly as though I had uttered one of those things that could not be explained. His only response was one of those I-don’t-know shrugs that you often see during election time when you ask why someone was voting for a particular candidate. I was lost. I wondered why he was allowed to approach this world of beauty and pick out what he thought was beautiful while I was confined to a skin I could not negotiate my way out of.
But my experience at home could not have been further from that. My mother, someone who fell into the light-skin category, would always point out dark women and say how much she admired them.
“Louise, look at her. She is so beautiful,” she’d say, or, “That is amazing skin.” In Nairobi, at home, I was beautiful. I was my mother’s ideal. In her hometown, however, I got out my books and read in every visible space so that if I couldn’t fill the world with beauty, maybe I could do so with intelligence.
I often left Tanzania with misgivings about adulthood. It was no longer a stage of life in which I could take charge of myself like I did when I passed my passport across the counter. Tanzania was a place that made me aware that I was not the ideal, and that there was nothing I could do about it. Every year or so, as I made this journey between my two worlds and passed by no man’s land, I wondered where this place of no rules or expectations existed for me, a place where I could define what beauty meant to me. As the bus drove further and further away, it was almost like the ideal I could never reach, the beautiful I could never become.
Adhiambo Okatch is a contributing writer. Email her at feedback@thegazelle.org.
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