My deep friendship with the mirror began when I was twelve years old. I remember it was a sunny weekday during my second school term in Primary Seven. I was sitting under the shade of the Primary Two dormitory veranda with my best friend Najjuko who was a repeater—a term used to refer to a kid who repeated a class in my primary school.
Najjuko had only missed the first grade by one point and her report card even had the words “PROMOTED TO PRIMARY SEVEN” stamped boldly on it. Her father who was also the deputy headteacher ordered that she repeat the class, however. He told her there was no way she would score four aggregates in the national primary leaving exams with such a grade.
Najjuko had cried her eyes dry begging her father to give her a chance or at least to transfer her to another school—to save her the embarrassment of repeating in the same school. But you see that girl had quite the reputation. Anywhere there was a crowd, she always was at the center of it. Her father was fed up. At the beginning of the school term, he stood in front of the fresh Primary Six students with Najjuko beside him and announced her the class monitor. That had done it!
In her days as a repeater, she evaded crowds the way students evaded each other during the flu seasons. She refused to make new friends and only hung out with me. And even then her words had lessened but on this particular afternoon, she was acting a bit different. I noticed she kept staring at me while we were having our lunch. Then, she made the “Mmmmmmmm” sound. Her mouth was contoured downwards and she was looking at me in that cocky way that many Ugandans use to express envied admiration when they make the “mmmm” sound.
I was confused. What had I accomplished that I did not know of yet?
My mind quickly rushed to the English papers that we had recently done. I had a very simple dream in Primary Seven. To be the best in my English class. Najjuko knew of this dream and did me small favours in that matter. We shared the same English teacher with the Primary Six class. Being the class monitor, she was able to access the class teacher’s desk; so she had got into the habit of telling me my English score long before the teacher returned our papers.
My heart leapt with joy. Could I have finally managed to beat everyone in English class?
I was about to ask her about it but she playfully tapped my shoulder and said, “Mmmmmm, most beautiful girl in primary seven!”
“Huh!?” was my shocked response. Where was this coming from?
“Stop pretending like you don’t already know,” she snapped.
Still confused I asked her, “Know what banange?”
She stared at me contemplating and then she giggled, “Kyooka you girl!”
She stood up at this point, arms akimbo and her head slightly bent and said, “Do you know today during English class, we were studying those things of more and most. Then we started to give examples and so the teacher asked, ‘Who is the most beautiful girl in primary seven?’”
She increased the pitch in her voice. “Imagine! The whole class shouted your name.”
Eh! What is this Najjuko was saying now?
I had never been called beautiful in my life before. Okay, maybe I came close to being called beautiful twice. One evening when I was much younger, my mother came back from work and found that my auntie Mamaye had shaped my eyebrows with a razor. With her fingers, she tilted my face upwards and looked at me for some time. A small smile played on her lips and I swear her eyes lit up as she asked me what I had done with my face that day. (I have an obsession with shaping my eyebrows now and then since that day)
The second instance was on one of those days when I had thrown a tantrum. I threw tantrums as a child whenever things did not go my way. I always got really angry and folded my face so that I resembled those small local footballs made of used polythene bags and cheap black rubber that the boys in my neighborhood played soccer with. On this particular day, my mother was in no mood to indulge me. “I wish you knew how your face lights up every time you smile. You would never fold it like a jajuok, a night dancer,” she said.
Before I could get a chance to drill more information out of Najjuko, the school bell rang and we both rushed to our respective classes to avoid being late and getting whipped with bamboo sticks by our unforgiving teachers.
Later that day, when I was in the dormitory, I pulled out my scratcher from my blue metallic suitcase. Scratchers were vital for both the boys and girls in my primary school. We were forced to keep our hair short and scratchers were the only type of comb in our reach that could keep hair that short, neat. Those small scratchers always had a mirror behind them, at least the new ones. My scratcher looked new only because my mom had told me sternly while we were packing for the school term that if I lose my scratcher again, I will be buying the next one with my own money. The thought of using part of my pocket money to buy a scratcher was not pleasant at all, so I took good care of it.
I wiped the mirror with my towel till it shone bright like the stars. I then stared at my reflection in that mirror for some good minutes. I had used the mirror before, and I stared at my reflection often, but only to check if my kaweke hair was well combed and no brown things were sticking out on my teeth.
That evening my heartbeat felt like a loud-speaker against my chest as I continued to stare at my reflection. I was scared. Scared I may not find what the whole primary six class had called beautiful. I noticed my dark and smooth baby skin. A friend of mine had once said to me, “If there is anyone in this class who will never get pimples it is you, Hilda”.
My nose, a tiny mindless feature, sat quietly on my face only twitching a little to take in air. And my eyes were a milky white innocence. I let out a small giggle and my big white teeth that were a bit mature for my baby face flushed. And there and then, I fell in love with that image.
13 years down the road, so much has changed.
I left my small home town in Entebbe and moved to the capital city, Kampala for my higher studies. Here I got exposed to a much bigger world and met a lot of people, and that is where I started to feel the extent of colourism in my country.
I think it all began with the beautiful billboards, that featured good looking women and men that I used to see on that Entebbe-Kampala road. Out of every ten billboards that I saw, nine featured light-skinned women or men.
Watching television was a great hobby growing up. I mostly watched Mexican and Brazilian soap operas and Disney sitcoms like Hannah Montana, The Wizards of Waverly Place and Suite-life on Deck. I gradually noticed that most of the main characters in these shows were light-skinned women with straight hair. Around this time I started to hear statements like:
“Kale, you have a pretty face, if only you were light-skinned.”
“Ye, why don’t you bleach?”
“Blackie,” which was usually intended as an insult.
So, I went back to my good friend Mirror and whispered to her, “Mirror! Mirror! On the wall who is fairest of them all?”
Silence. No reply. What happened? I wondered. When I was 12 you agreed with the whole Primary Six. Now what? Colour blind too? Bitch! I was angry. My anger took a great toll on my self-esteem.
Mirror and I broke up.
A few years ago, Mirror and I made up. I am happy to inform you that we are great friends again. For us to reach the level of friendship we have now, however, I had to take Mirror off the wall. On the wall, she acted according to the conventions that media and society dictated. A girl is meant to be light-skinned. A boy is meant to be dark-skinned to be handsome.
Over time the beliefs on colourism have been firmly cemented into our social way of thinking as Africans, it has become normal. While I was at the university, I remember a popular song from a local artist that had a catchphrase “Colour ya Zari, Booty ya Luzinda“. Zari is a light-skinned Ugandan socialite/businesswoman and the well-established musician was spreading the notion that obviously, light skin colour is ideal for beauty. Local artistes have played a big role in promoting this belief through continuously composing songs that praise light skin over dark skin and making music videos that largely feature light-skinned women.Among predominantly dark-skinned communities, especially in the Eastern and Northern parts of Uganda, having a child that is light-skinned is treated as some kind of achievement, some parents can’t help hiding their preference over the light-skinned children. My pretty dark-skinned cousin sister tells me that when they gave birth to her young sister who is light-skinned, she went through a phase where she disliked the baby and didn’t feel like carrying it because every time she carried the child, onlookers and close relatives would comment, “What happened to you? Your sister is so beautiful”. Her mother refers to the child as ‘My Angel’ in a way that my cousin feels left out and is constantly questioning her own beauty. Now she says she is used to this treatment because that is the way things are.
When it comes to dating world, you find that many dark-skinned brothers only chase light skin, while some light-skinned brothers feel like they are doing dark-skinned sisters favour going out with them
. They expect you to humble yourself and be grateful you got a man!
You are not allowed to feel or consider yourself beautiful as long as you are dark-skinned.
In search of acceptance, many people resort to bleaching. Society expects you to eventually give in to the vice. I remember people who thought they were complimenting me say things like, you have nice skin, Make sure you don’t bleach. It is ironic that the same society which uplifts light skin over dark skin is very fast to cast stones over the rising bleaching epidemic.
A lot of our standards and notions on beauty as Africans have been largely influenced by the western world through media where they continuously portray a template kind of beauty: light skin and straight hair among their heroines. We have done nothing to help our case as all we do is cement these beliefs further using them as weapons against each other.
I have had to unlearn that skin colour is overrated and once you care to look there is beauty in all shades. I am relearning that we live in a highly diverse world where one thing cannot and shouldn’t be used to set standards. And what are standards anyway? Now that I think of it, it is quite ridiculous that I once thought of myself as undesirable because of the colour of my skin. I have a lot of flaws and the colour of my skin is not one of them.
I love my dark skin. I am sorry but not sorry. I know I am beautiful the way God created me.
This is a story that I have never shared with anyone and only chose to share today because I have been quiet for too long. Silence just like fear cuts deeper than swords. Like Kelly Rowland sang, “when you make pain feel this good it never airs out”. In our silence, we dig graves deeper for such things as bleaching, loss of identity and colour supremacy to prevail. I encourage you my fellow sisters and brothers who have suffered colourism in any form to speak out.
@Ms. Awori, Facebook is Hilda Awori and Email is firstname.lastname@example.org